Mobile

NReal Light hands-on: These AR glasses don't offer much of an AR experience

NReal is trying to make phone-connected smart glasses a thing, but there's not much AR to experience here.

Sareena Dayaram/CNET

One of the biggest challenges of mixed-reality headsets is the size. That's the challenge a Chinese upstart called NReal wants to tackle with its sunglass-style AR glasses. The company, which raised $100 million this year, is planning to release its Android-based glasses in the US on Nov. 30. If you're curious, you can try the smart accessory at select Verizon stores, before deciding if you want to pony up $600 for a pair. Online sales begin Dec. 2. 

Unlike the Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap One, which are sold as enterprise products, NReal's glasses are pitched as a consumer accessory. NReal says it aims to "move the goalpost in advancing the viability of consumer AR hardware as the next-generation mobile platform."

NReal's lightweight glasses tether to a phone (a OnePlus 9 Pro in my case) and take a similar approach to Magic Leap by separating the processor from the glasses. Qualcomm is a driving force behind NReal and it's aiming to improve its bridging tech, Snapdragon Spaces, next year, which could also lead to more glasses like these. 

Read more: Qualcomm is building a bridge between phones and smart glasses: Here's how it will work

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Sareena Dayaram/CNET

Light has two displays that show moving 3D images superimposed into the real world. They offer a 52-degree field of view, which is great for feeling immersed into an MR world. (A narrow field of view was the fatal flaw for Microsoft's HoloLens.) Keep in mind the Light is an AR headset, and not a VR one: It has transparent lenses, which let you see your real-world environment. But it includes an eye covering too, which puzzles me given the company's AR pitch. Unlike VR, AR is supposed to serve up a seamless experience, blending its holographic images with the real world. Either way, I was excited about the product and figured I'd be easily impressed since I'd never used an AR headset before.

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like NReal Light and despite the company's bold promise of an AR future, these smart glasses clearly have a long way to go. Android and iOS don't support AR glasses much at all, and companies like NReal are striving to encourage that support as well as get a foot in the door in the door early. The Light doesn't offer much of an AR experience: There's more VR media than AR -- and since that's the case, you're better of buying the $300 Oculus 2 from Facebook. 

Although apps such as Google Play, Chrome and Instagram came preloaded, the selection of AR and MR apps was limited. That's a big problem because an AR gadget should offer an AR experience if it wants to succeed. Admittedly, I did find it useful for watching high-res videos on-the-go on a larger screen since I wasn't limited to my smartphone's display.

To be sure, the brand's smart eyewear isn't exactly new -- NReal Light has been sold in a handful of countries including South Korea and Japan over the last few months, where it's apparently found success. My CNET colleague Patrick Holland first experienced a since-updated prototype of NReal's flagship glasses back in 2019 at CES.

Although the consumer AR headset space isn't crowded at the moment, the broader AR and VR headset category is buzzing. Big Tech names such as Facebook and Microsoft have been pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars, and have subsequently released boundary-pushing products such as the Quest 2 and the HoloLens. More recently, there have been credible rumours that Apple will throw its hat in the (virtual) ring too, with its first mixed-reality headset reportedly launching sometime next year.

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Sareena Dayaram/CNET

My experience with NReal Light

Setting up the NReal Light was a breeze, given that it offers a plug-and-play experience. All I needed to do was add one of the provided nose pads to the glasses, then download the Nebula app and connect the over-the-shoulder cable from the glasses into my phone's USB-C port in order to get going. Once that was done, I slipped the glasses on. Thanks to the lightweight design, I knew I'd be able to comfortably wear them for a couple of hours. 

As soon as the Nebula interface appeared, however, I couldn't read a thing. The sunlight, pouring in through my apartment windows, washed out a lot of the interface. My apartment was simply too bright for the NReal Light. So I went on to dig up the eyewear covering from the box, snapped it on, and finally -- I could read what was in front of me. But only in the virtual world.

Using the covering meant that experience had suddenly shifted from one that was marketed as an AR experience into a VR one. A VR headset closes you off to the real world, while an AR headset is supposed to augment your reality, layering virtual things over the actual world. 

Despite all of that, I enjoyed using my phone as a controller. A virtual beam extends from the phone, which you can use to point at objects, interact with them on the screen and manipulate them in your real-world space. For instance, through the Infinity Space app, I could summon virtual cats or dancing anime women. The experience reminded me of Google's collection of AR animals, which lets you superimpose animals, skeletons and even microscopic cell structures over your real-world environment.   

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Qualcomm's concept of how AR apps like Spatial will feel using AR glasses.

Qualcomm

Apart from that, there were preloaded apps including Facebook Gmail and Instagram, and about 17 native gaming and productivity apps, which include Spatial, Table Trenches and Magician Mystery. I decided to try Spatial, the popular VR meeting app. Unfortunately, as soon as I entered the app, I hit a notification saying the developers had stopped offering support for the device (as well as Magic Leap) since October this year. I was still able to use the app though and managed to get a tour of an Open Sea NFT gallery. So the Light could theoretically allow holographic interactions.

Read more: I got a glimpse of a 5G-enabled AR office

Although these glasses did not offer much of a AR experience, it was nice to be able to watch YouTube videos, scroll my Instagram feed, and browse the internet on the larger "screen" at a respectable resolution of 1080p. Perhaps if the Light hadn't been pitched as NReal's groundbreaking AR glasses, I might been more satisfied with the experience. 

In its current form, I think the Light is something cool and futuristic to show your friends. Perhaps some die-hard AR fans or early adopters might be interested, but it still has a lot of quirks to iron out before it can appeal to a mainstream audience.

NReal Light key specs


NReal Light
Dimensions Unfolded: 146x175x44mm; Folded: 156x52x44mm
Weight 106g
Diagonal FOV 53 degrees
Screen Size 230 inches at up to 6 meters away
Speakers Spatial Sound
Head Tracking 6DoF
Connectivity USB Type-C
Accessories VR Cover, 4x nose pads, prescription lens frames, case, cleaning cloth

These Verizon phones are compatible with NReal Light

  • Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G UW
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 5G UW
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G
  • OnePlus 8 5G UW

NReal will make an extra "dongle" available for iPhone compatibility, but didn't specify a release date.