Nreal Lights the Way

New headset signals the next generation of augmented reality glasses

Nreal’s Light smart glasses went on sale recently in South Korea, and for me, they’re one of the most exciting pieces of technology to launch over the past few years. We’ve seen progression in devices such as smartphones, wearables, tablets, gaming consoles and more, but new members in these categories have generally been iterative improvements on a theme, rather than truly ground-breaking products.

This is where the Nreal Light stands out. These augmented reality (AR) smart glasses are the closest thing so far to being a mainstream AR device for the consumer market. Other products have tried to tap into this space before, but being technologically immature devices with prohibitively high prices and a lack of uses for them, they’ve generally sold very few units. I’m backing the Nreal Light to break this trend and in time become known as a torch-bearer for AR.

So, what’s the Nreal Light and what makes it different? The device is a sunglasses-style AR headset that can project images and overlay apps onto the real world. It has a 52-degree field of view and a stereoscopic display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels; for wearers, this is the equivalent of viewing a 100-inch screen. This allows users to see content projected in front of them, as demonstrated in the video below from Nreal.

One of the main areas that sets the Nreal Light apart from previous AR glasses for consumers is that it connects by tethering to a smartphone. The headset hands off power and processing requirements to the smartphone, which allows it to be smaller and lighter than existing head-mounted displays that need to house batteries and computing units. To deliver a truly portable AR experience, comfort is paramount, and the tethered-to-smartphone design of the Light looks to be a winner on this front.

Another major benefit of this design is that it allows the Nreal Light to provide a user experience starting from the smartphone. The headset’s Nebula operating system provides a 3D interface that lets people view their smartphone apps through the glasses. Users can dive into the content and services they already use on a daily basis, rather than needing to navigate an entirely new environment.

As well as lowering the hurdle of learning to use the new technology, the smartphone-first approach also helps to insulate against criticism about a lack of dedicated extended reality apps and services at launch. Platforms like Spatial, which allow users to socialize with friends in virtual spaces, are promising support for the Nreal Light, but this doesn’t change the fact that it will take time for a breadth of extended reality services to grow and develop.

It’s a frustrating problem, and there’s a chicken-and-egg scenario here: content developers will want to see headset sales to convince them to build for AR, whereas customers want to see content to convince them to buy a device. In time, this impasse should unblock, but until then, smartphone apps provide a solid content platform for Nreal to build on.

Once dedicated extended reality services arrive, they offer a huge amount of promise. Plenty of people will be familiar with the potential uses for AR, which are now closer than ever. Concepts like getting heads-up turn-by-turn directions when navigating somewhere new, or watching a film on a huge virtual screen while on public transport, are becoming a reality. In the same way that touch screens revolutionized the way people interact with technology, AR glasses could reinvent the way we see and engage with the world around us, providing a canvas for innovative and powerful new experiences.

There are caveats to any hype about new technology, and Nreal doesn’t escape this. Although its hardware is a major step in the right direction, AR glasses of the future will aim to offer a sleeker design than the Light, which perhaps just falls short of the “would I wear it in public?” test. Battery life could also be a problem, as it seems as though the Light might drain the battery of an attached smartphone in just a few hours, which would be a dealbreaker for many people.

Despite this, the Nreal Light still feels like a step up, and I believe it sets the example for other AR devices to follow. There’s already evidence of this in devices from headset makers including the likes of Pico, Panasonic and iQiYi, all of which are working to launch extended reality viewers that tether to a smartphone. As more devices launch later this year and into 2021, it will help to develop and gradually cement the product category. But for now, Nreal is the player to watch as it seeks to Light the way.