Sun, Feb 27, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Qualcomm bets on demand spurred by mundane items


Qualcomm Inc, the biggest maker of mobile-phone chips, is betting that cereal boxes, washing machines and children’s books will help drive demand for powerful processors for mobile devices.

Beginning this year, people will be able to point their cellphones at everyday items and bring them to life on screen, such as in games, advertisements and how-to guides, said Jay Wright, director of business development at San Diego-based Qualcomm. So-called augmented-reality applications will emerge when the company releases a new software package next quarter, he said.

The market for these specialized apps is projected to grow to US$3 billion by 2016 from US$21 million last year, according to ABI Research. As demand for augmented-reality surges, so will the need for processors that can handle demanding computing tasks at higher speeds, Qualcomm says.

“It’s tremendously computational intensive,” Wright said in an interview. “This is something that wasn’t possible until we had gigahertz-class processors.”

Augmented reality in a cellphone works by scanning each frame from the camera, looking for a known image by comparing it against a database on the device, then drawing graphics on top of that image, all at 30 frames per second, he said.

For example, the winning app in a recent competition for Qualcomm developers was for a game called Paparazzi. The game shows a vain celebrity superimposed over whatever the phone is pointed at.

The player becomes a virtual photographer who has to take photos before the celebrity gets agitated and attacks. The game’s two Lithuanian developers received US$125,000, Qualcomm said last week.

While most phones that run Google Inc’s Android software are capable of running some form of augmented reality software, they aren’t powerful enough to deal with programs that recognize more than one object at a time, limiting the uptake of the software until more capable chips come to market.

By making the software free and open to other chipmakers’ products, Qualcomm also risks helping its competitors if its processors can’t establish a lead in performance.

While games will lead the augmented-reality apps market for now — because they are the fastest-growing type of mobile apps — eventually the technology will expand to more functions, driven by the advertising industry, Wright said.

In the future, a shopper might walk down a supermarket aisle and point a cellphone at items on the shelf. The cellphone would then display discounts, related ads or product information, he said. Pointing the cellphone at a children’s cartoon book could make an animated character come to life.

Augmented reality will also return to its roots as an instructional tool, Wright said. The technology was developed for aircraft maintenance, where mechanics would wear special glasses with wiring diagrams projected onto the lenses.

A consumer application of the technology will come in the form of an onscreen guide to everyday devices such as a washing machine. By pointing the phone at the controls, the user would be shown step-by-step-instructions on setting different wash cycles, Wright said.

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