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Meta’s chip deal with Qualcomm may reflect its unrealized VR ambitions

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Qualcomm and Meta have signed a multi-year agreement promising to team up on custom versions of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR chips for the “future roadmap of Quest products” and “other devices,” as Mark Zuckerberg put it.

While, in some ways, the move is business as usual — the Quest 2 is powered by the Snapdragon XR2 chipset — it could provide insight into Meta’s compromises as it faces declines in revenue and tries to keep the spiraling expenses of Mark’s metaverse project in check.

What the Qualcomm deal shows is that Meta’s upcoming headsets, which reportedly include a high-end headset codenamed Cambria and, later, new versions of its cheaper Quest headset, won’t run on completely customized Meta-designed silicon.

This is despite competing companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google making product decisions around custom chip designs like M2, Graviton3, and Tensor — and the fact that Meta’s had a team dedicated to doing the same since 2018. This press release says the chips will be “customized” for Meta’s needs. Still, we don’t know how much space that can put between its “premium” devices and other manufacturers’ hardware that hews closely to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR reference designs.

In April, The Verge reported that Meta employees were working with semiconductor fabs — the companies that actually produce the physical chips — to make custom chips for its as-of-yet unannounced AR headset. That same month, The Information reported that some of Meta’s efforts to create custom chips were hitting roadblocks, pushing it to use a Qualcomm chip for its second-gen Ray-Bay smart glasses instead of its own silicon.

Qualcomm reference designs for wired and wireless smart glasses

Qualcomm reference designs for wired and wireless smart glasses

Tyler Yee, a Meta spokesperson, said that the company doesn’t discuss details about how its roadmap has evolved and wouldn’t comment on any specific plans it may have had for custom chips for Quest products. However, Yee did share a statement on the company’s “general approach to custom silicon,” saying that Meta doesn’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all approach” for the tech powering its future devices.

“There could be situations where we use off-the-shelf silicon or work with industry partners on customizations, while also exploring our own novel silicon solutions. There could also be scenarios where we use both partner and custom solutions in the same product,” he said. “It is all about doing what is needed to create the best metaverse experiences possible.”

The backdrop to all this is a company facing a lot of pressure. Meta’s revenue has dipped for the first time (thanks in part to Apple’s changes to how apps are allowed to track users), and Zuckerberg explicitly stated plans to turn up the heat on employees while admitting, “I think some of you might just say that this place isn’t for you. And that self-selection is okay with me.” At the same time, he’s making a massive bet on the metaverse — the company is spending, and losing, billions of dollars per year on the project, which includes AR and VR headsets.

It’s a high-stakes game that Meta would presumably want to play as close to the chest as possible. But for now, it seems the hardware customers access Zuckerberg’s Metaverse with (if they’re going to do that at all, instead of just playing Beat Saber) will remain powered by somebody else’s chips.

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