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Qualcomm Chairman’s Focus Spans Apple Phones to Robotic Avatars

Paul Jacobs, one of the four sons of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, succeeded his dad as CEO and ran the company for nine years. But since stepping down in March, 2014, he’s found myriad ways to stay busy. He’s still executive chairman of Qualcomm’s board, keeping him in the loop on all the mobile chipmaker’s upcoming technologies, products, and legal battles, including recent lawsuits with Apple.

And lately he’s been spending time investigating futuristic avatars, a la the James Cameron movie. This is next level virtual reality. It’s not just seeing and hearing another place with goggles and headphones, but adding gloves or a suit to control the movements of a robot that is physically located in the other place and can transmit touch sensations back to the wearer.

“You project your consciousness into a robot somewhere else,” Jacobs explains over lunch at Henrietta’s Table, a farm-to-table bistro near Harvard University. “Before you think that sounds weird, it actually works.”

When Jacobs tried the set up recently, just with a robot across the room, he says he suddenly found himself looking back at his own body and feeling disjointed and separated. But the robot could be much, much farther away, limited only by high-speed data links. “You’ll be able to travel and do all sorts of stuff without actually being there,” he says.

Right now, the biggest challenge with the technology is the delays that can occur between the human operator and the remote robot. If the robot doesn’t react immediately to the human’s gestures and commands, the sense of being in the remote location is broken. But with higher data speeds and lower latency, the 5G wireless networks that Qualcomm and other companies are working on should help. How the user will control the robot’s movements and what the robot should look like are also open questions. “There are a few issues we haven’t quite solved yet,” Jacobs admits.

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Keeping busy, Jacobs is also involved with the OneWeb satellite communications project, is a part-owner of the Sacramento Kings, and has a new baby daughter with his second wife.

OneWeb, an communications provider which ultimately plans to loft 720 satellites, got permission from the Federal Communications Commission last week to access the U.S. market. With other backers including Richard Branson and Softbank Group CEO Masayoshi Son, the company hopes to succeed where many prior efforts have flopped.

Jacobs worked on Globalstar, one of the earlier satellite communications projects that never made it big, went bankrupt in 2002 and later was revived by creditors. One lesson learned was to use the satellites to connect to cellular base stations on the ground, not to individual specialized phones. “What we’ll do is make it easy for the cellular system to be deployed everywhere,” he explains, including hopefully plans to bring high-speed connectivity to schools in remote parts of developing countries.

Even though Jacobs no longer runs Qualcomm’s day-to-day operations, as chairman, he’s still in on all the company’s big issues. So as far as the Apple lawsuit, which cuts right to the heart of Qualcomm’s patent-licensing business model, Jacobs offers a strong attack on his company’s adversary.

In its January lawsuit, Apple claims Qualcomm has abused its dominant position for mobile communications chips to charge excessive royalties, with the rates calculated based on the overall value of a phone, not just the price of the communications components. But Qualcomm says its percentage take is perfectly legal and helped fuel the many innovations it brought to market.

“Apple was an upstart at one point to Motorola, Ericsson, and Nokia,” Jacobs says. “If we hadn’t been there to provide the technology that allowed them to get off the ground, they would never have been able to do that, (it) would not have happened.”

Pulling out a gigantic, late 1990s era smartphone that Qualcomm (QCOM) developed in conjunction with PDA-maker Palm, Jacobs says Apple didn’t invent many of the key features in the iPhone. “Those guys did an amazing job of marketing it,” he says. “It was this idea of the way this (user interface) worked that I think people were attracted to and that helped further it, and then massive marketing budgets, which is the way a lot of things happen.”

Jacobs is fairly dismissive of the advances that phone makers like Apple (AAPL) have added to the smartphone over the years compared to new technologies from Qualcomm, like the super-fast version of 4G LTE in its latest chip set.

“A black rectangle, now it’s curved, a little less bezel,” he says. “They’re nicer and nicer — they’re incrementally nicer in that sense. But now that it’s got gigabit LTE, that’s radically different.”