Light as Air

Nreal’s latest smart glasses set to launch in the UK

Smart glasses continue to be a hot topic in the tech world, with lots of speculation about when and how people will be able to get their hands on new and exciting devices. We’ve seen the Nreal Light launch in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Spain, and the Ray-Ban Stories, which were built together with Meta, release in North America, Western Europe and Australia.

This week, another device joined the party in the UK; the Nreal Air, a slimmer version of the company’s Light product, will be made available by EE later this spring as the network aims to deliver the latest and greatest devices and experiences to its customers. It should be noted that no official launch date or pricing is available yet.

The Nreal Air glasses promise a large-screen experience on the move, allowing users to watch videos and play games on a display that equates to a 201-inch screen at a distance of six metres. As the effects of the pandemic recede and people continue to return to a more mobile lifestyle, this sort of device may prove attractive. It’s not hard to see how catching up on Netflix or last night’s football highlights on a hands-free digital screen could entice commuters on busy trains.

The Air glasses are designed to be more accessible than other such devices, looking more like a pair of everyday sunglasses than a futuristic headset. From personal experience, I’ve found some of the best augmented reality (AR) devices out there to be fairly uncomfortable after even a few minutes’ use, so the idea of something lighter and sleeker certainly sounds promising.

It’s worth noting that one of the ways that the Air glasses achieve a smaller design is by jettisoning some of the more advanced componentry typically needed for “full” AR — for example, cameras that can analyse a wearer’s environment and overlay digital content accordingly. As such, these glasses will provide a more limited AR experience, which won’t interact with the real world in much depth at all.

But this is very much indicative of where the smart glasses category stands right now. My recent hands-on testing with a range of smart glasses and AR products has made it clear that there are two strands of products in development. We have top-end AR glasses that deliver a cutting-edge experience harnessing powerful graphics and advanced computing capabilities like simultaneous localization and mapping. These are typically bulky and heavy devices given the need to pack more advanced computing and components into them.

Then there’s a raft of far more wearable devices that sacrifice a fully-fledged AR experience, either partially or altogether. Nreal’s new product fits here, with its more limited AR offering. There’s also the Ray-Ban Stories, which have no display but do include cameras, microphones and speakers. Although these aren’t AR glasses, they’re certainly smart glasses given their capabilities.

In my view, the turning point for smart glasses will be the arrival of super-powerful devices that provide deep contextual information overlayed onto the real world, being comfortable to wear and offering a whole day’s worth of battery life. There’s no doubt we’re years away from such a device. Nreal’s Air glasses probably sit somewhere between the two strands I mentioned earlier, and progress on both fronts is welcome as the journey unfolds.

For that reason, I’m excited to see EE post a vote of confidence in the Nreal Air — and in smart glasses more generally. The move sees one of the UK’s leading networks collaborate with an innovator in the AR space and will let consumers get a taste of tomorrow’s technology as it continues to develop. As people look set to become increasingly mobile after two years of relative stasis, new devices may find space to thrive, and smart glasses will certainly be one area to watch.