XCOM Labs takes wraps off XR tech at AWE USA 2022

Lacking the so-called “killer app,” 5G thus far has evoked a mostly lukewarm reception outside of the carriers that spent billions to deploy the technology. But a group of former Qualcomm executives is trying to change that at XCOM Labs, which specializes in wireless extended reality (XR) systems.

This week, XCOM Labs is demonstrating its XR system at Augmented World Expo (AWE) USA 2022 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. They’re using HTC Vive Focus 3 virtual reality (VR) and Microsoft HoloLens 2 Mixed Reality headsets equipped with XCOM Labs radios.

Former Qualcomm executives Paul Jacobs, Matt Grob and Derek Aberle are leading the efforts at XCOM to bring its XR technology to life. The plan is for XCOM to commercially launch its technology later this year using the unlicensed 60 GHz band.  

The company was founded in 2018, when they had an idea for improving system performance, something that didn’t naturally happen when newer generations of wireless came along, such as from 3G to 4G.

From left, former Qualcomm executives Matt Grob, Paul Jacobs and Derek Aberle are leading XCOM Labs’ efforts to supply technology for a better XR experience.  (XCOM Labs)

“We had an idea that could actually improve the efficiency dramatically,” and that essentially revolved around centralized processing, Jacobs told Fierce. Jacobs is CEO, chair and co-founder of San Diego-based XCOM Labs and previously was CEO of Qualcomm, a company co-founded by his father, Irwin Jacobs.

The tech that makes headsets work better is a combination of the wireless technology and software on edge servers and on the headset. It uses split rendering, which means what happens on the headset is a small amount of computation; most of the work happens at the edge server so they can do cinematic-style rendering, according to the XCOM executive.

XCOM Labs now employs more than 80 people. It’s developed three systems: an unlicensed band solution, one that uses licensed band technology and another that’s centered around software and virtual reality. What they’re showing off this week at AWE is the unlicensed band technology in combination with the software.

“We’re sort of taking the wraps off,” the VR solution that runs in the unlicensed 60 GHz spectrum, Jacobs said. The first thing they’re launching is the unlicensed band technology and that’s expected later this year.

XCOM Labs showed the augmented reality technology at a military conference in San Diego last year. That marked the first public showing of its XR indoor mobile system.

5G to the rescue

In XCOM’s press release last week, the company mentioned how high-quality immersive digital environments were previously only possible through wired connections, such as head-mounted displays connected to powerful computers. So it’s easy to see how 5G comes into play here.

For augmented and virtual reality, latency is a big deal, because if there’s any lag at all, “you start to feel sick from it,” Jacobs noted. “We’ve really focused in on managing latency in the system,” so users don’t get sick, which hasn’t always been the case for newcomers in this space.   

The tech on the VR side is intended to give very high data rates to multiple users in a confined area and manage latency, throughput and reliability – “all the buzzwords that you hear around 5G,” Jacobs said.

“Basically we took what was WiGig technology and applied cellular ideas to it, so that we could solve the problems that had essentially caused WiGig to fail,” such as lack of robustness and handoffs, he said. WiGig is part of the IEEE 802.11-based standards.

They’re also approaching open Radio Access Network (RAN) with great interest. It’s early days for open RAN and the interoperability isn’t 100% perfect yet, so it does take some work when switching partners, but the interfaces are defined and “you can choose different partners,” he said. In terms of getting access to software, there’s an ecosystem of vendors to start with and build innovation on top of that.

Whereas 2G was about voice and small amounts of data, 3G was all about wireless internet. 4G was really about enabling video, according to Jacobs. And 5G? If you believe the hype, 5G is going to solve world hunger.  

But he added that the metaverse is going to be a prime place for this technology. It’s a big area, and Meta (formerly Facebook) founder Mark Zuckerberg has put a lot of focus on the metaverse.