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Nreal Light review: Hardware is only half the battle

Through a glass, darkly

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Nreal has sold me on the appeal of watching TV with a pair of glasses, and I wish I could recommend buying the glasses that did it.

Nreal’s Light sunglasses, which Verizon will start selling later this month, are one of only a few consumer-focused augmented reality headsets. They’re an impressive technical feat: small for an AR or VR product, comparatively affordable at $599, and capable of full-fledged mixed reality that projects images into real space, not just a flat heads-up overlay like the North Focals.

Unfortunately, Nreal’s software doesn’t fulfill its hardware’s promise. The Light is hampered by a bare-bones control scheme, a patchy app ecosystem, and a general user experience that ranges from undercooked to barely functional. Nreal may well have shown us the future of AR, but it seems disinterested in making the experience very pleasant.

The Nreal Light is (sort of) a svelter version of the $3,500 Microsoft HoloLens or $2,295 Magic Leap One mixed reality headsets. The device looks like a pair of very large sunglasses with two cameras for spatial tracking embedded in the front. When you plug it into a supported Samsung or OnePlus phone’s USB-C port, it projects a slightly transparent image on top of the real world. That could include a flat screen that always stays in the center of your vision, a grid of icons pinned to a specific point in space, or a 3D game board resting on a physical desk. You can control apps by swiping a trackpad on your phone’s screen or aiming it like a remote control to point and click.

The Light is only “sort of” like those AR products for two reasons. The first is that Nreal isn’t using the same optics tech as Microsoft or Magic Leap. Those expensive, industrial-grade headsets use something called a waveguide: a thin multilayered lens that sits in front of your eyes, refracting light from a projector. The Nreal Light uses a system dubbed birdbath optics: micro OLED screens whose light is reflected off a mirror.

I didn’t have a HoloLens or Magic Leap device for comparison, although I’ve used both in the past. The Light’s 53-degree diagonal field of view is similar to the current-generation HoloLens, and its OLED projection system produces remarkably crisp images. The images fade against midday light or a bright laptop screen, and they almost never look totally opaque, but I could say the same about other headsets’ holograms.

Adi Robertson wearing the Nreal Light glasses while holding a carrying case under one arm
The glasses come with a compact black carrying case.

On the other hand, Nreal Light projections look much less convincingly 3D than HoloLens or Magic Leap images. I never got the uncanny sense that an object was literally resting on the ground or rolling behind a table, something I’ve felt many times with more expensive headsets. The illusion was more like a really high-quality version of the Lenovo Mirage’s augmented reality games.

I believe that’s partly due to my second caveat: Nreal isn’t focused on creating immersive experiences or great spatial tracking. My review unit came preinstalled with a smattering of full mixed reality apps alongside a variety of apps (like Wikipedia, YouTube, and some Chinese video portals) you could pin as mixed reality windows. But most of the former were haphazardly designed and barely functional minigames. The tracking cameras are supposed to support hand tracking on top of the phone-based control scheme, but you can’t control the main interface that way, and I couldn’t find any preinstalled mixed reality apps that supported it.

The Nreal glasses seen from above
The “birdbath” optics design requires a thick upper edge.
The Nreal Light glasses seen from below
Swappable nose pieces prop up the lenses.
The Nebula launcher app for Nreal’s glasses on a OnePlus phone
A launcher app is required for full mixed reality controls.

Instead, Nreal seems more interested in giving buyers a private virtual screen — and the results are tantalizingly close to great. Lots of companies, including Meta (formerly Facebook) with its Quest 2, offer to replace your monitor or TV with glasses. The Nreal Light is the first time I’ve ever wanted to take that bargain.

Nreal has eased the biggest pain points of virtual screens, most prominently the awkwardness of wearing one. At 106 grams, the Nreal Light is lighter than even the smallest current-generation VR headsets, including the 189-gram HTC Vive Flow. Its design is still front-heavy and thick. But a swappable nose bridge props the lenses at the right distance and angle — which is, sadly, unnaturally far away from your face and nixes any chance of people thinking that you’re wearing normal sunglasses — to display an image clearly. When you’re not using the Light, you can fold them up and put them in a nicely compact case.

I’m a small-headed person who finds most glasses-style headsets nigh-unwearable, but the Light was an exception. It’s infinitely easier to put on or take off than other AR and VR devices, and it stayed on my face with occasional adjustments as long as I didn’t move my head around too quickly. Although the sunglass lenses make everything a bit harder to see, there’s a sense of connection to the outside world that even VR with passthrough video can’t get you.

After a little experimentation with the Nreal Light, I could comfortably sit on a couch watching YouTube Dream SMP fandom recaps while knitting, wear it at my desk while using its Wikipedia app, or slip my phone into my pocket and walk around the kitchen making tea while watching anime. I even took the Light on the subway — I got a lot of funny looks, but the experience was about a million times better than my public transit adventures with a Gear VR six years ago. Nreal ships the device with a black cover that completely blocks out light, but I much preferred being able to see what was going on around me, especially because the glasses aren’t a substitute for a fuller-featured VR headset.

This involves some tradeoffs, of course. The projected image wasn’t as rich as I’d have gotten on a physical OLED TV or a monitor. The glasses use small speakers that pipe sound into your ears, and their audio was a bit tinny and not necessarily adequate for a public space like the subway, although it seemed to vary by app. (Weirdly enough, there are no volume buttons on the hardware, only a rocker that changes the screen brightness.) The field of view far exceeds, say, the original Microsoft HoloLens, but it still doesn’t extend to your full field of vision. The Light also burned through battery life on the OnePlus 8 5G UW phone Nreal lent me, giving me around three hours of TV viewing between charges.

The biggest problems, however, were software-related. An Nreal launcher app offers two modes: air casting, which mirrors your phone’s screen, and mixed reality, which launches apps pinned in 3D space. This latter mode can’t support the DRM of American streaming apps like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, so you have to air-cast them — which means you can’t pin the windows in a specific part of your room, use the phone as a pointer controller, or minimize the app on your phone’s screen. Even the fairly wide field of view is a double-edged sword here because it means the images stretch to the very edge of the display, where it’s hard to focus on them. I asked Nreal if there were plans to change this, but spokesperson Angela Lin indicated these apps wouldn’t support mixed reality “for the moment.”

Adi Robertson wearing the Nreal Light glasses
Cameras are embedded in the glasses for spatial tracking.

Nreal’s limited device support also hampers its system. The Light does work with products besides its handful of supported phones — I plugged it into an older Samsung phone and MacBook Pro — but only as an external monitor right at the center of your vision. That means you can’t do things like pin a second laptop screen on your desk.

And even inside mixed reality mode, the phone isn’t a very good controller. There’s no attempt at creating a consistent interface across apps, so practically every third-party mixed reality experience has a different, incredibly clunky set of virtual buttons pinned to the phone-remote.

Bad software can be fixed after release, unlike bad hardware. But there’s simply no sense that Nreal is aiming for a coherent ecosystem rather than an external monitor that sits flatly over your eyes. And for the latter, you might want to wait for the Nreal Air, an even smaller headset with no cameras that’s supposed to sell at a far lower price.

Adi Robertson holding a OnePlus phone as a controller for the Nreal Light glasses
Your phone acts as a remote control in mixed reality mode.

Which is a shame because I can envision an exciting future for the Nreal Light. It’s far more low-key and almost normal than anything similar I’ve seen from another company — even Apple with its widely leaked AR / VR headset. With a better interface, I could imagine using it with a wireless keyboard and hand tracking as a laptop replacement. While I’d still feel weird watching a movie with somebody through two pairs of personal glasses, it’s a solid TV substitute if I’m watching something alone — or with another person casually milling around.

But most US buyers won’t get enough of what the first-generation Nreal Light is offering. It’s an expensive near-prototype that leaves a lot of obvious low-hanging fruit unpicked, almost certain to either improve with another iteration or get crushed by one of Nreal’s many competitors. And until it can actually replace some of the screens in your life, do you really need another one?

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