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Tickets to the Augmented Reality ‘Show’


CEO: Paul Jacobs.

Revenue: $10.99 billion in FY 2010; $10.42 billion in FY 2009.

Net income: $3.25 billion in FY 2010; $1.59 billion in FY 2009.

No. of local employees: Declined to state. However, in response to a San Diego Business Journal Book of Lists survey last year, a company official put Qualcomm’s local full-time employment at 11,847 as of Aug. 1.

Headquarters: Sorrento Mesa.

Year founded: 1985.

Stock symbol and exchange: QCOM on Nasdaq.

Company description: Technology company specializing in hardware and software for mobile devices.

The screen of your smart phone reveals a 3-inch-high cartoon man standing on your tabletop, shifting his weight back and forth while balancing a teacup with one hand.

What seems like a hallucination is actually part of very concrete strategy by Qualcomm Inc. to push more of its Snapdragon smart phone chipsets out to the market and boost earnings.

Qualcomm is working in a field called “augmented reality,” where the camera of an Android-based mobile phone takes in a scene, then superimposes a computer-generated picture on top of it. The picture appears to have three dimensions. A person can move their smart phone to see the image from all angles.

Qualcomm passed a milestone April 27, when it took its augmented reality software out of the beta test phase and began allowing developers to sell applications made with it.

The number of smart phones able to handle augmented reality applications grew from 8 million in 2009 to 100 million in 2010, said a February report from Hampshire, England-based Juniper Research Ltd. Analyst Windsor Holden forecasts that by 2015, revenue from augmented reality-based applications and services will approach $1.5 billion.

Jay Wright, senior director of business development at Qualcomm, said augmented reality applications come in two forms.

Going Places

One might allow a tourist in Paris to point a phone at a certain structure. The phone would recognize the location and the shape and identify it as the Eiffel Tower. In another use, pointing the phone at a street might yield directions to the nearest coffeehouse. Such applications require GPS and compass data.

Qualcomm specializes in a second variety of augmented reality, where a person might point a phone at a two-dimensional object — a cereal box, a print ad or a mat on a table — and watch a 3-D scene seem to sprout from it.

Augmented reality might have uses in industry, too. For example, it could help an aircraft technician make sense of the repair job that is in front of him.

Other companies producing augmented reality software include Germany-based Metaio GmbH and Nintendo.

Qualcomm makes its software development kit available free of charge. Applications developed with Qualcomm software will work most effectively on phones or tablets running Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips.

William “Bo” Brinkman, a professor with Miami University of Ohio, said a key part of Qualcomm’s offering is its alliance with San Francisco-based Unity Technologies, which offers a 3-D game development platform.

In mid-April, the Dallas Mavericks basketball team became the first organization to use the Qualcomm software commercially. Fans were able to point their Android phone cameras at their Mavericks playoffs tickets and watch the plane of the ticket transform into the floor of a cartoon basketball court, where a player shot goals. Beverly Hills-based BigPlayAR wrote the program using Qualcomm software.

Mavericks owner and tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban said in a Qualcomm-issued statement that the technology “added a new layer of fun and interaction” to the fan experience and that he hopes to do more with augmented reality.

A Qualcomm-sponsored competition that culminated in February brought in several game concepts for smart phones — and revealed a satirical streak among software developers. A duo from Lithuania won first place and $125,000 for “Paparazzi,” a game featuring the 3-inch man with the teacup.

Game Changer

In the game, the phone user is a photographer stalking a celebrity for the tabloids. Grabbing a far-off shot gives the player only a few dollars. Shooting closer to the star brings in a bigger paycheck, as does capturing the celeb in an awkward pose. The game ends when the celebrity blows his top, attacks the paparazzo, and appears to shatter the camera lens.

Augmented reality seems poised to help with more mundane tasks.

In Ohio, Brinkman and a student have developed a tool that can detect whether library books are shelved in order. Viewing the shelf through the camera, a librarian can see a red X on a book in the wrong place, and can see an arrow pointing to where that book is suppose to be placed.

Blair MacIntyre, an associate professor with the Georgia Institute of Technology, said augmented reality could help staff at the neighborhood supermarket see whether products are distributed correctly on the shelves. It could also help assembly line workers better evaluate the products passing before them. In the latter case, however, workers would need displays on their glasses to keep their hands free. Qualcomm has a formal working relationship with Georgia Tech.

People familiar with augmented reality technology say there are plenty of puzzles yet to solve. They include reducing power consumption, improving identification of 3-D objects, as well as developing faster and more accurate ways to use GPS and compass data.

Wright said Qualcomm has a large research effort into augmented reality, though he declined to say how many people are in it. The company is doing work in San Diego as well as in England, China, South Korea and Vietnam.


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