As interest in virtual reality explodes, there's a growing focus among developers on writing programs that can provide interactive experiences on VR headsets. Now, Qualcomm is jumping in with a new VR software development kit that makes it possible to write applications for Samsung's Gear VR headset.
Apps written with the kit, due out in the second quarter, will exploit graphics features on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chip, which is in some models of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge smartphones. The handsets hook up to the Gear VR headset.
The goal with the SDK is to provide a VR experience via mobile devices, which means balancing graphics and other processing to preserve battery life on handsets. The mobile VR experience won't be as intense as on an Oculus Rift VR headset, which requires a high-end GPU found in high-end desktops.
VR is emerging quickly for gaming and various interactive experiences. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said VR could be the next big social platform. HP is tying VR to 3D printing, and others see promise in medical, engineering and other applications.
Companies like Oculus, HTC, Sony and others are expected to ship VR headsets later this year. Gartner has estimated VR headset shipments to hit 1.4 million this year, a big rise from 140,000 in 2015, and then growing to 6.3 million by 2017.
But writing VR apps isn't as easy as putting code together for a 2D screen. The VR headset provides a new interactive interface and requires an understanding of human-computer interaction.
For example, ARM's Mali VR SDK has sample programs to provide a deeper understanding of eye tracking, which is key to VR experiences. Programmers shouldn't create a 3D world where users feels like their eyes are getting poked. The Mali SDK also covers tracking a viewer's head orientation and reducing latency when showing content.
Qualcomm's SDK exploits digital signal processors (DSPs) in the Snapdragon 820 to track the position of the head. The SDK is also designed to ensure quick content layering and delivery.
Qualcomm hasn't said whether it will offer educational tools for VR programming. The company wasn't immediately available to comment on whether it would provide a VR headset or developer boards for programmers -- particularly ones who don't have access to the Snapdragon 820 chip -- to test their apps.
Qualcomm is a bit behind other companies in releasing its VR SDK -- Samsung and Google have already released SDKs that work with the Snapdragon 820.
In addition the upcoming Project Tango smartphone developed by Lenovo and Google will have VR capabilities, and the device has Qualcomm's Snapdragon chip. Developers have been hopping over to Google's Project Tango SDK, which can enhance the smartphone usage experience by measuring distances, recognizing items, mapping locations and creating models of 3D objects. All the relevant information is shown in real-time on the handset screen.