Nreal Air review: New AR specs put a big screen in front of you | wearable technology

TAugmented reality glasses first made their first major public appearance on the UK’s high street, putting TV shows, movies and games on a big virtual screen in front of your eyes. But while the Nreal Air is the first of its kind to hit the shelves, it’s limited in what consumers can do with it.

Many companies have tried to be the first to make augmented reality glasses the next generation of technology, not least Google with its ominous glass Back in 2013. snap chat And the Facebook Both sports cameras have made attempts to record the others, but so far there are no consumer glasses with screens to display to the wearer. Until now.

Still targeting early adopters, the £400 Nreal Air that EE sells is taking a streamlined approach. They’ve abandoned cameras that could be seen as violating others’ privacy, focusing instead on giving wearers virtual semi-transparent screens for video, apps and games in a light and compact frame.

The glasses must be constantly connected via a cable to a coil Android compatible smartphone to operate. They will not work with the iPhone but will work with other Apple devices such as some iPads, Macs, and Windows.

A man wearing Nreal Air glasses.
The Air are the most popular smart eyewear to date, but they’re clearly not your average sunglasses, and they really stand out from your face. Others will also be able to see what you are watching before your eyes. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The glasses lack a battery or processing power of their own, making them comfortable and lightweight at just 79 grams, but the USB-C cable hanging from the left arm squeezes into your ear. They can take prescription lenses, although you will have to get them through your optician, they have adjustable temples and several nose bridge sizes for a customizable fit.

Hidden OLED screens at the top of the chunky frame project images onto the transparent lenses right in front of your eyes. The virtual screen they make is surprisingly clear and bright. However, the notion of augmented reality that many recognize – where objects in your vision are highlighted as cultural landmarks – is not possible because the glasses lack the cameras or sensors needed to “see” the real world.

Nebula control app that appears on Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone connected to Nreal Air glasses.
Nebula app on Android smartphone required for more advanced functions, used here on Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Instead, the specification has two modes. First, Air Casting basically uses the glasses as an external display for your phone. Second, “MR Space” behaves as a set of VR glasses, like Meta Quest 2with screens you can interact with floating in front of you in a virtual space.

MR Space

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

Use Nebula app On your phone as a pointing and tap stick to interact with items, MR Space creates a virtual space with a floating home screen in which you can launch and layout your browser windows.

The system has three degrees of freedom (3DoF), which means you can flip 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 full-size Guardian website is open in the middle but Twitter is far to your left. It is new but limited. The built-in browser can only reach you so far.

View through the lens of Nreal Air goggles showing the Guardian website.
The image through the glasses is surprisingly crisp and clear, especially in dull conditions or with the optional blackout cap clipped to the front of the glasses. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

An interesting virtual cycling experience is available. But it’s a lot like a demo, just play a steady paced video of a road through a city or a landscape on a screen floating in front of you while you cycle on an exercise bike. The field of view is narrow, meaning you turn your head and see an empty space, while there is no connection between what you do with your legs and the video.

I can see an app like Zwift A goggle cycling and running training simulation with a 360-degree virtual experience, but we’re not there yet.

There are quite a few apps and games that work with glasses available on the Play Store but most of them are only compatible with Nreal’s. Sophisticated and expensive light glasses Not available in the UK. In order for the mixed reality mode to be interesting other than fast-paced gameplay, it needs many applications and features.

Air Pour

The Marvel Studios logo appears on a smartphone connected to Nreal Air glasses.
Air Casting 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

What’s most compelling right away is using glasses as an alternative TV that mirrors your phone screen. Turn on Netflix or something like that for a movie, TV show, or game and you’ll have your own mini-cinema. The glasses create a 24-inch screen an arm’s length away from you on the desk, which is definitely better than trying to watch something on the small screen of your phone.

The majority of media streaming apps and games work, but the ones that limit payoffs when you have a TV don’t, like Sky Go. The glasses have small built-in speakers that work well but broadcast sound to those around you. It is best to connect the bluetooth earbuds to your phone to provide the soundtrack.

It’s fun to try different apps on your phone as well, like watching a live feed from your phone’s camera on the glasses or playing console-quality games through the Xbox Game Pass using the Bluetooth Control Panel.

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

Additionally, the Side View option moves content to the left of your view so you can see something without obstructing your view of the real world in front of you, although fewer apps support this mode.

One wrinkle of both modes is that what appears on the glasses also appears on your phone screen. Turn off the phone screen and stop appearing on the glasses.

Other things you can connect them to

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

Outside of what Nreal intends to do with the Nebula Control app, the glasses can simply function as a USB-C external display. connected to Smartphone Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra I can use DeX Android Desktop-like interface, which was surprisingly good.

connected to iPad mini Or any other Apple tablet with a USB-C port, the glasses appeared as a TV, enabling me to watch videos on them using the playback controls on my iPad.

The glasses can be used as a monitor on your Mac or PC as well. Nreal recently announced that it’s working on a system to play games from the PC Steam store on beta glasses slated for the end of June, so obviously the intended use with an Android smartphone is only the beginning.

Sustainability

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

Eyeglasses can generally be repaired by Nreal. The company has committed to keeping the device updated for the foreseeable future, with plans to introduce new experiences and expand compatibility.

EE offers barter and recycling schemes but the glasses are not made from recycled materials, and Nreal does not publish environmental impact assessments.

price

Nreal Air cost £399.99 advance or £395 Spread over 11 months exclusive with EE in the UK. You don’t have to have a phone contract with the company to buy one, nor are there any tariffs on the glasses.

Rule

The Nreal Air is the first range of mixed reality glasses available in the UK that doesn’t break the bank and actually works, although it’s limited in functionality and compatibility.

It’s clearly made for early adopters of Android, and offers a demonstration of what’s possible with its Nebula app and MR Space. But they miss out on compelling mixed reality experiences. It is a case of a chicken and an egg. Without glasses in people’s hands, there is no incentive for developers to create apps, something Nreal hopes to change through its own work, Developer Programs And selling glasses.

At the moment, the most obvious use is to use a virtual TV screen. They are more comfortable than virtual reality headsets and less than half the cost of previous augmented reality glasses. I can see passengers or those who don’t have big TVs turn to them as a better way to watch the latest blockbuster movies or play games.

It’s fun to try different apps on your phone to see what they look like on the glasses, like Xbox cloud games. Their use with computers, tablets and other devices offers even more interesting possibilities. It remains to be seen if this is enough of a draw.

Positives: Light, comfortable, adjustable fit, good screen, optional light cover, compact design, built-in speakers, cheaper than competitors, default MR and VR modes, can be used casually with most USB-C devices.

Negatives: No real augmented reality cameras or sensors, few attractive mixed reality apps, limited smartphone compatibility, no iPhone support, and expensive for the limited experience, had to be used by cable.

Angled prisms image on the back of the sun lenses creating a semi-transparent display for the Nreal Air.
The angled prisms on the back of the sunglasses create a semi-transparent screen but thicken the front of the glasses. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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