Nreal Air review: New augmented reality specs put a big screen in your sight | Wearable technology


JThe first widely available augmented reality glasses have appeared in the UK, putting TV shows, movies and games on a large virtual screen right before your eyes. But while the Nreal Airs are the first of their kind on shelves, they’re limited in what consumers can do with them.

Many companies have tried to be the first to make AR glasses the next generation of technology, including Google with its ill-fated Glass in 2013. Snapchat and Facebook have made attempts, both sporting cameras to record others, but until now there have been no consumer glasses with screens that the wearer could see. So far.

Still aimed at early adopters, the £400 Nreal Air sold by EE takes a streamlined approach. They forgo cameras that could be seen as an invasion of others’ privacy, instead focusing on providing the wearer with virtual semi-transparent displays for video, apps, and games in a lightweight, compact frame.

The glasses must be constantly connected by cable to a compatible high-end Android smartphone to function. They won’t work with an iPhone, but with other Apple devices such as some iPads and Mac and Windows computers.

The Air are the most standard-looking smartglasses to date, but they’re still no ordinary sunglasses, protruding far more from your face. Others will also be able to see what you are looking at in front of your eyes. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The glasses lack battery or clean processing power, making them comfortable and light at just 79g, but the USB-C cable hanging from the left arm puts pressure on your ear. They can take prescription lenses, although you must obtain them through your own optician, have adjustable arms and multiple nose bridge sizes for a customizable fit.

OLED screens hidden in the top of the chunky bezel project images onto the clear lenses in front of your eyes. The virtual display they create is surprisingly crisp and bright. However, the idea of ​​AR recognized by many – where objects in your vision are highlighted such as cultural landmarks – is not possible because the glasses lack the cameras or sensors needed to “see” the real world. .

The Nebula control app displayed on a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone connected to Nreal Air glasses.
The Nebula application on Android smartphone is necessary for the most advanced functions, here used on a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Instead, the spec has two modes. First of all, “Air Casting” basically uses the glasses as an external screen for your phone. Second, “MR Space” behaves more like a set of virtual reality goggles, like Meta’s Quest 2, with screens you can interact with floating in front of you in virtual space.

RM space

Snapshots showing what is displayed on the glasses, including the home screen (top left), various browser windows (top right), repositioning a browser window (bottom left) and the cycling experience (bottom right).
Snapshots showing what is displayed on the glasses in MR Space, including the home screen (top left), various browser windows (top right), repositioning of a browser window (bottom left) and the cycling experience (bottom right). Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Using the Nebula app on your phone as a pointing stick and clicker to interact with the elements, the MR space creates a virtual space with a floating home screen from which you launch and arrange browser windows.

The system has three degrees of freedom (3DoF), meaning you can turn your head side to side, move it up and down, or rotate it to different angles to see more of the virtual space, like the Guardian site open full size in the middle but Twitter far to your left. It’s new but limited. The built-in browser can only take you so far.

A view through the lens of Nreal Air glasses showing the Guardian website.
The image through the goggles is surprisingly crisp and clear, especially in darker conditions or with the optional blackout shade attached to the front of the goggles. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

An interesting virtual cycling experience is available. But it’s more like a demo, just playing a fixed-paced video of a route through a city or landscape on a floating screen in front of you as you cycle on an exercise bike. The field of view is narrow, which means you turn your head and see a gap, while there’s no connection between what you’re doing with your legs and the video.

I can fully see an app like the Zwift cycling and running training simulator on the glasses with a 360-degree virtual experience, but we’re not there yet.

There are a handful of apps and games that work with the glasses available in the Play Store, but most of which are only compatible with Nreal’s more advanced and expensive Light glasses which are not available in the UK . For mixed reality mode to be interesting beyond a quick game, it needs a lot more apps and features.

Air molding

A Marvel Studios logo displayed on a smartphone connected to Nreal Air glasses.
Air Casting simply mirrors what’s on your phone screen onto the glasses so you can use apps, watch movies, or play games. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

More immediately compelling is to use the glasses as a substitute TV mirroring your phone screen. Fire up Netflix or similar for a movie, TV show or game and you have your own little private cinema. The bezels create a screen the size of a 24-inch monitor an arm’s length away from you on a desk, which is definitely better than trying to watch something on your phone’s tiny screen.

The majority of media streaming apps and games work, but those that limit retrieval when you have a TV connected don’t, like Sky Go. to those around you. Better to connect your own Bluetooth headphones to your phone to provide the soundtrack.

It’s also fun to experiment with different apps on your phone, like seeing a live feed from your phone’s camera on the glasses or playing console-quality games through the Xbox Game Pass app with a Bluetooth joypad.

A photo of a fox seen through the Nreal Air lens.
You can view photos, websites and videos or play games through the glasses using your connected device. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Additionally, the “side cast” option shifts content to the left of your view so you can watch something without obstructing your view of the real world in front of you, although fewer apps support this mode.

A downside to both modes is that what appears on the glasses also appears on your phone screen. Turn off the phone screen and it stops showing on the glasses.

Other things you can connect them to

Nreal Air glasses connected to an iPad mini.
Most other devices see the Nreal Glasses as a TV or monitor connected via USB-C. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Outside of what Nreal offers you to do with its Nebula control app, the glasses can simply act as an external USB-C monitor. Plugged into a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone, I could use its Android DeX desktop-like interface, which was surprisingly good.

Connected to an iPad mini or other Apple tablet with a USB-C port, the glasses appeared like a TV, allowing me to watch videos on it with playback controls on the iPad screen .

The glasses can also be used as a monitor on a Mac or PC. Nreal recently announced that it was working on a system to play games from the PC Steam store on the glasses with beta software scheduled for the end of June, so clearly the intended use with an Android smartphone is only the beginning.

Sustainability

The Nreal Air glasses in an open pill-shaped storage case.
The glasses come with a hard pill-shaped case for travel and storage, as well as a blackout plastic shade that clips onto the front of the Air to block out ambient light. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Lenses are generally repairable by Nreal. The company is committed to keeping the device up to date for the foreseeable future, with plans to introduce new experiences and expand compatibility.

EE offers take-back and recycling programs, but the lenses are not made from recycled materials, nor does Nreal publish environmental impact assessments.

Price

The Nreal Air costs £399.99 upfront or £395 split over 11 months exclusively with EE in the UK. You don’t need to have a phone contract with the company to buy one, and the glasses don’t have a rate attached either.

Verdict

The Nreal Air are the first set of mixed reality glasses available in the UK that don’t break the bank and actually work, although they are limited in function and compatibility.

They’re clearly designed for early Android adopters, offering a demonstration of what’s possible with the Nebula app and its MR space. But they lack compelling mixed reality experiences. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Without glasses in people’s hands, developers have no incentive to build apps, which Nreal hopes to change through its own work, development programs, and sales of the glasses.

For now, the most obvious use is as a virtual TV screen. They are more comfortable than VR headsets and cost less than half of previous AR glasses. I can see commuters or those without big TVs turning to them as a better way to watch the latest blockbuster or play games.

It’s fun to experiment with different apps on your phone to see how they look on the glasses, like Xbox cloud games. Using them with computers, tablets and other devices offers even more exciting possibilities. Whether that is enough remains to be seen.

Advantages: lightweight, comfortable, adjustable fit, good screen, optional clip-on shade, compact design, built-in speakers, cheaper than rivals, virtual MR and VR modes, can be used informally with most USB-C devices .

The inconvenients: no cameras or sensors for true augmented reality, few compelling mixed reality apps, limited compatibility with smartphones, no iPhone support, expensive for the limited experience, must be used tethered by a cable.

An image of the angled prisms on the back of the sunglasses lenses that create the Nreal Air's semi-transparent display.
The angled prisms on the back of the sunglasses lenses create the semi-transparent display but make the front of the lenses thick. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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