Four years ago, a group of ex-Qualcomm executives, including former CEO Paul Jacobs, launched XCOM Labs to push the performance boundaries of wireless technology.
This week, XCOM will demonstrate its initial product — an untethered virtual and augmented reality system that promises to deliver cinematic-quality imagery to dozens of headsets in a room simultaneously, without the transmission delays that can cause motion sickness.
“We are talking about giving hundreds of megabits per second guaranteed per user in a very dense environment, so we were focused on a 30-by-30 space,” said Jacobs. “And then the number of users. We’re building a system that will do like 64 users.”
Potential applications include training, product design, location-based entertainment and remote medicine, among others.
“We are focused on private networks,” said Jacobs. “You go to an enterprise that has a job that needs to be done, and you provide the end-to-end ability to get that done.”
At the Augmented World Expo in the Bay Area, XCOM’s virtual reality demonstration will place users in a clearing. As they move their hands, the landscape becomes lush, as if they’re causing the world to grow around them. Because of space limitations, the demo involves only two people at once.
Its augmented realty demo is in a 1,400-square-foot space with a variety of content on headsets equipped with XCOM Labs radios that link to its wireless access points.
Jacobs joined former Qualcomm President Derek Aberle and ex-Chief Technology Officer Matt Grob in founding XCOM. The company has raised $70 million so far and employs about 80 workers, said Jacobs. TDK Ventures announced an investment in XCOM last week, though it didn’t disclose the amount.
In AR/VR, headsets plugged into powerful gaming computers tend to deliver the best performance, with low latency and realistic renderings.
But the industry has been working to cut the cord, in part because being able to move freely opens to door to more applications and use cases beyond gaming.
With wireless headsets, the processing is still done on nearby computers. It’s then streamed from the computer to the headset over the air.
“A lot of them are using Wi-Fi 6,” said Anshel Sag, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy who covers the industry. “Oculus already offers this, as does Pico and HTC, where you just stream from your PC. You have the full power of your graphics GPU from your gaming PC or your enterprise workstation, and you can stream that to a headset and get higher fidelity VR and AR experiences.”
That said, even Wi-Fi 6 — the latest generation of Wi-Fi — can have problems around latency, which may result in jittery images. And performance tends to slow down as more users jump on the network.
“Things have improved considerably in the last few years where a lot of people would say that it is good enough,” said Sag. “But I would say that having a dedicated high bandwidth signal would probably reduce latency even more.”
That is what XCOM aims to do. It uses what’s known as Wi-Gig technology. Its radios and access points can deliver up to 400 megabits per second to multiple headsets using unlicensed, 60 gigahertz airwaves.
While 60 gigahertz serves up hefty capacity, it’s also prone to interference and blockage. In AR/VR, losing the signal is worse than having imperfect latency, said Sag.
According to Jacobs, XCOM has applied cellular techniques to alleviate some of the interference problems with unlicensed 60 gigahertz airwaves. He expects XCOM’s system to be commercially available later this year or early next.
“We take the wire away, and we don’t add much latency to take the wire away,” said Jacobs. “It is really a different experience, too, when you can just walk around. You are much more immersed.”