Samsung made a number of impressive announcements during its Galaxy S23 launch event last week. But an out-of-the-blue partnership with Qualcomm and Google on the upcoming multiple-reality platform definitely caught lovers off guard. The new “XR” technology is a broad term for AR, VR, and the eructation of augmented reality, or MR.
A new HTC Vive VR headset, in a year when a new PlayStation VR headset, a new Meta VR headset, and possibly the first Apple VR headset will appear, how will this Samsung product change the game, and when might it arrive?
Samsung’s on-stage announcement was defiantly vague, with Google’s Hiroshi Lockheimer, head of Android, and Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon promising new hardware and software that would bring new tests. But Samsung and Google’s history in VR (and AR), along with Qualcomm’s core presence in the area, may point to some answers. So, two years ago smartwatches may also been the last big Google and Samsung partnership.
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In 2021, Google’s partnership with Samsung led to a rethink of its smartwatch lineup, with the Pixel Watch falling last. It’s possible that this new Samsung-Google-Qualcomm partnership could play into AR and VR alike. In this sample, however, both Google and Samsung are making long overdue returns in the VR/AR spaces, both of which have stepped away for several years.
This is why foraying into the territory of Samsung and Google makes sense and is desperately needed.
AR and VR need to work together again with phones
Half a decade ago, VR goggles used to work with phones. In the days of Samsung Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View, you’d strap a phone into a cheap set of glasses that would use the device itself as a VR screen. It was a fun innovation, and greatly expanded reach, but it also had its limits. In 2023, strangely enough, VR headsets barely work with phones.
This is troubling since most of us live our lives on our phones. VR, meanwhile, has tended to stand alone. It doesn’t have nearly enough cross-device intelligence, Meta Quest 2’s slowly developed hook into phones via its pairing app.
Right now, VR is the future. Then, AR
No one has yet built perfect AR glasses, although the hardware pieces are slowly coming together. Meanwhile, standalone VR headsets that use built-in cameras to show “passthrough” videos of the real world, along with virtual reality experiences, are the fastest solution to AR. This is also called “Mixed Reality” and is what MetaQuest Pro does in some apps. Apple’s upcoming Mixed Reality headset should work in a similar way. Is HTC’s Vive XR Elite arriving this February? same thing
I expect Samsung and Google to start by developing a similar lightweight VR headset with mixed reality features, using the same Qualcomm chips as the other hardware (or next-gen chipsets). Then AR glasses.
(Think Smartwatch) A New OS
The biggest challenge and opportunity is to evolve Android into a new software experience for VR and AR, and it makes a lot of sense for Samsung to rely on Google here.VR headsets of the past five years have all tried to go it alone, with dedicated app stores like Meta Quest. but the whole spirit of the “metaverse” idea is cross-device compatibility. And, in principle, easier app support.
Samsung changed its strategy on its watches by adopting Google’s WearOS as part of a partnership announced two years ago that was intended to bring Samsung’s watches closer to Google’s Android OS. But Samsung also helped Google think about high-end health and hardware features to bolster its aging smartwatch lineup. which brings us to…
A path to Pixel hardware?
At some point, you would imagine, Google will try to make its own AR/VR hardware again. The team behind Google’s Daydream, led by Clay Beaver, has focused on Google Labs while working on more experimental projects such as Project Starline (and their research-based subsidiary AR Glasses).
It looks like the path to Google’s future XR hardware will run through Samsung, just like the smartwatches ahead of the Pixel Watch. The Galaxy Watch 4 became the first foray into Wear OS 3, and then Google entered the waters a year later with the Fitbit-infused Pixel Watch.
AR and VR headsets are quite complex. Maybe Google will wait a while on Pixel devices. Maybe, as both Google’s Lockheimer and Qualcomm’s Amon suggested, it will take a variety of forms and possibilities, including some that aren’t headsets at all. Remember: Google’s idea of “ambient computing” includes immersive tech from every angle, not including the stuff.
In what year will it come out?
Here’s a tough question. It looks like Google will dive more into this partnership at its I/O developer conference, which usually takes place in May, which will be right before Apple takes on its VR headset at WWDC. We’ve yet to get a hint of any actual hardware. It’s not impossible that a standalone VR headset in the spirit of Meta Quest could materialize soon, but if anything does arrive in 2023, it would be a huge surprise.
When Samsung and Google announced the Wear OS 3 partnership in 2021, it came with a teaser photo of the watch and a promise of hardware by the end of the year. No such statement was made or shown this time and 2024 would seem like the earliest possible launch date.
And at any rate, 2023 is looking like a turbulent year for the larger XR world. While there’s a lot of VR hardware coming out, it’s not clear who can actually buy it. For Samsung and Google, the best bet is to wait out this congested year and figure out how to make better, possibly more affordable hardware in 2024.