Nreal Light is the first AR glasses product available in the US. But is this new technology ready for regular consumers yet? Read on to find out.
Light is available in Verizon stores and on Verizon’s website. It weighs around three times a heavy pair of sunglasses, or a third of a Magic Leap One headset. To achieve this form factor Light is powered by a smartphone over USB cable – there is no battery or full-fledged chip onboard.
Price & Compatibility
Light is priced at $599. While Nreal says you can mirror any Android or iOS device to a floating virtual screen in front of you, to use the actual augmented reality capabilities including positional tracking and AR apps you’ll need a compatible Verizon flagship device:
- Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
- Samsung Galaxy S21+ 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
The cheapest of these is $799, so the total buy-in price if you don’t already own one starts at $1398.
Visual Quality & Field of View
To start, I should probably really be referring to Light as sunglasses since the real world is darkened. Other than being darker, the view of the real world is clear and undistorted – this is the key advantage of see-through head mounted displays.
The problem with see-through display systems however is that the darker the pixel, the less opaque it will appear. True black is completely invisible, since it’s produced by turning the pixels off. This means some virtual objects can appear more like translucent holograms than real objects, unless they entirely consist of bright colors.
But this opacity limitation aside, Light’s dual 1920×1080 OLED microdisplays provide very impressive angular resolution. The visual quality is sharper than any (consumer) VR headset, and apps like the browser feel much like using a real 1080p monitor. Even at a distance, small text is easily readable. At no point using Light did I feel resolution was a limitation.
The major flaw with Light’s image is that it appears to blur as you move your head. It’s incredibly distracting, and suggests the displays are full persistence. The vast majority of VR and AR headsets since 2014 have used low persistence displays, precisely to avoid this blur effect.
Field of view is much more difficult to convey. I could tell you it’s 53 degrees diagonal. I could explain how that’s equivalent to sitting in front of a 19″ monitor, or 2 meters away from a 77″ television. But none of these figures really capture what it’s like through the glasses.
The best way I can think to really get across the field of view is to express it as a percentage of the lens – ie. how much of the lens can actually show pixels and how much is just regular sunglasses. Before I express that though, you need to understand a few caveats compared to regular glasses:
- Light’s lens is narrower (vertically), so there’s lots of empty space below you
- the top of Light’s frame is much thicker, so you can’t see above you
- Light’s lens sits further in front of your eyes
With that out of the way – to my eye Light’s display extends across roughly 85% of the lens vertically and around 70% horizontally.
What this means in practice is you’ll want to position virtual screens and objects at least a few meters away to be able to see all of them at once. This severely limits what kind of content Light works well with, but this is a problem with all current see-through displays.
Comfort & Size
Nreal Light is more comfortable than any head mounted display I’ve ever used. Unlike bulky AR goggles and compact VR headsets it truly does feel like wearing a heavy pair of glasses – 109 grams to be exact.
Light comes with four separate nose pads, and everyone I demoed it to was able to find at least one they found very comfortable for their nose shape.
The only complaint I have about Light’s comfort is it sometimes gets warm. This isn’t a dealbreaker, but when it happens it limits how long it can be worn for.
Nreal Light has two tracking cameras for inside-out positional tracking. It works, but there’s noticeable bounce and drift.
While Nreal’s SDK can detect horizontal planes like your floor and table, it doesn’t generate a depth map and doesn’t map your walls in any way. As such, it doesn’t support occlusion – meaning virtual objects and screens always appear in front of real world objects, even when they’re more distant.
From a core technology perspective tracking is the weakest aspect of Light, and the biggest difference between it and much more expensive AR hardware such as HoloLens 2 or Magic Leap One.
Like HTC’s Vive Flow virtual reality headset, Light is controlled by your smartphone acting as a rotational laser pointer.
The control scheme on the touchscreen varies between apps. Nreal has a default, but apps can render their own phone UI and virtual buttons. Since you can actually see the phone this is much more usable than Flow, but since the phone isn’t positionally tracked it’s still awkward and clunky.
Nreal’s SDK actually supports hand tracking, but bizarrely almost no apps support this, and the system software (Nebula) doesn’t either.
Software & Content
Nebula is Nreal’s system software, the default app you’ll see in AR mode. It lets you open, move, resize and reposition web browser windows or phone apps in your real room as well as being the interface for launching AR apps.
Nebula is genuinely impressive. While I wish I could point and pinch with hand tracking, even using the phone to position browser windows means you can easily watch videos or read articles anywhere, without having to hold a phone or tablet in your hand.
While the hardware field of view limits Nebula’s usefulness, this is a genuine preview of a future where physical TVs and monitors are antiques of the past and your workspace is wherever you want it to be.
Other AR apps are far less useful. You get them from Google Play, Nreal doesn’t have its own store. There are maybe two dozen in total. Most are essentially demos. AR content still feels like VR content did back in 2014 when the only widely available hardware was the Oculus developer kits.
Should You Buy One?
If you’re a software developer or tinkerer interested in building for the latest technology platforms, and $599 is a reasonable price to you, picking up Nreal Light could be a great way to get started in AR.
But what if you’re not a developer? If you frequently spend time in hotels or temporary accommodation and find yourself missing your big TV from home, Light could effectively be a huge ultra-portable floating screen.
For everyone else though, unless you’re incredibly eager to preview the future and $600 is pocket change, AR just isn’t ready for you yet.