How real do you like your reality?

Earlier this week, Qualcomm was announced as the technology partner of Formula E. Impressive as that sounds, what does it actually mean? To find out, Current E caught up with Qualcomm’s marketing director Cynthia Ray and global social marketing exec Jason Avila at the Frankfurt motor show.

With a stock market value that beats that of Intel and with a turnover of $19 billion, Qualcomm might be the biggest company you’ve never heard of. That’s largely due to the fact that its business is focused on other businesses – processing chips that power smartphones, TVs and games consoles, as well as finding application in cars.  

The Californian tech company now wants to better buy into consumer consciousness, for reasons this great article points out. Step forward, Formula E.

Qualcomm’s partnership with the series is shaped initially to cover three strands: induction battery charging for the safety cars in the first season, with the intention of integration into race cars come season two; streaming telemetry data from the race cars; and assuring a powerful spectator multimedia experience.

We explored the challenges of induction charging in Formula E earlier this week. The technology allows vehicles to be charged wirelessly, using an electromagnetic field to transfer energy. To begin with, safety cars will make use of use static charging, which requires the cars to be motionless while charging. Dynamic charging (topping up batteries while a car is on the move) is much trickier, especially at high speed, but is something the company is targeting.

But Ray and Avila are equally excited at the prospect of harnessing the company’s foundations in mobile technology to provide a rather unique spectator experience. Most people already expect to be able to email, text, Tweet and access the internet at all times. But Qualcomm’s augmented reality platform Vuforia, which works across Apple and Android devices, will be used to superimpose data onto the real world in real time, through the screen of a smartphone or tablet.

The company is already at work trialling something similar with baseball in the US. The concept involves first bolstering the infrastructure at a stadium so that fans get a seamless experience across Wifi, 3G or 4G. Fans will then be able to watch replays, view different angles and pull up statistics and other data, overlaid onto the baseball park in front of them. The programme is already underway, with 30 baseball stadia on the hit list.

In Formula E, a fan might be able to hold their smartphone up to a section of track and watch replays of incidents at that location, such as the traditional first-corner melee. They might be able to see the hidden motors working as the race cars flash past, access telemetry data, and vote for their favourite driver to gain an advantage with the Fanboost system. A spectator waiting for the race to begin could access footage of previous races at the track and watch them again. Users may even be able to capture real life objects – or people – and transport them into a gaming environment.

The technology is likely to allow fans to order food from their seats, access discounts on upgrades, purchase merchandise to pick up on the way out or order a cab. Even a simple proposition such as a circuit map becomes instantly alive with opportunities for expansion in the mobile world.

In short, the partnership between Qualcomm and Formula E is designed to marry all the online media goodies that we’ve come to expect from the internet and from big TV broadcasters with virtual reality, to create a new spectator experience. That’s not empty rhetoric. It’s almost more technology than many might be able to cope with; it’s the “red button” service on steroids.

As with other big ideas being ushered into reality by the battery-powered racing series, there are significant issues to overcome in order to make it happen.

With the baseball stadia, there’s the infrastructure itself for a start, the size of the facility and its age, what it’s been built from, and whether the site is near a city centre with strong networks. Then there’s the challenge of coping with peak demand when thousands of fans try to access the same real-time information in the same place at the same time.

Then there’s the location. For Formula E, while it’s feasible that events in London, LA or Rome might be able to support such traffic, in other places bolstering connections may simply not be possible.

It is, however, an impressive statement of intent from both Formula E and Qualcomm in trying to capture the very best that the internet and mobile technology have to offer. Will that help Formula E sell more tickets or Qualcomm charge more for its chips? Like everything else about the new racing series, that remains to be seen.

Augmented reality and wireless charging are just two more concepts that ought to be pipe dreams, but two that Formula E suddenly seems perfectly capable of bringing very much to life.

Next stop: teleportation, warp drive and light sabres, please.