Nreal’s new AR sunglasses are made for binge watching TV

Augmented reality company Nreal is launching a cheaper, iOS-compatible, more compact version of its smart glasses. The new Nreal Air glasses are supposed to ship starting in December 2021 across Japan, China, and South Korea. The price isn’t set, but Nreal says they’ll cost “a fraction of the price” of its earlier Nreal Light glasses, which started selling for around $600 last year.

Based on Nreal’s description, the new Nreal Air glasses have some core similarities with the Nreal Light glasses from 2020. Both are designed to look like relatively normal sunglasses and pitched as ideal for projecting a virtual big-screen display in front of your eyes. They’re both using micro OLED displays for their augmented reality optics and are powered by a phone via a tether cable. And they’re both aimed at consumers rather than businesses, researchers, or the military.

But Nreal Air glasses have a different feature set than their predecessors. Similar to Microsoft HoloLens or Magic Leap hardware, the original Nreal Light glasses could map physical space around you with a set of outward-facing cameras. Nreal Air glasses, by contrast, don’t have any outward-facing cameras. They can display video and phone apps, but they can’t see what’s around you, which means they don’t have the spatial awareness and hand tracking options the Nreal Light does. You’ll control them with a smartphone app, an option that’s also available on Light glasses.

The upside is that Nreal Air glasses are ironically much lighter than Light glasses at 77 grams instead of 106 grams. They don’t have the slightly bug-eyed look that Light glasses do — in product renders, they look more like Facebook and Ray-Ban’s smart glasses, minus the front-facing cameras. (The Ray-Ban Stories glasses, which have cameras but no AR display, weigh around 50 grams.) The new glasses let users tilt the lenses at three angles, making it potentially easier for more people to get a clearer image. Nreal Light glasses launched with support for specific 5G Android phones, but the new glasses will also work while tethered to iPhones and iPads as well as “most” Android devices.

Compared to the Light, the Nreal Air glasses also have a higher screen refresh rate of 90Hz and an increased pixel density of 49 PPD. Nreal says the glasses’ field of view is 46 degrees, compared to the Nreal Light’s 52 degrees — it equates the Air’s view with a 130-inch screen from 3 meters away or a 201-inch screen at 6 meters. If wearers have friends with Nreal glasses, there’s a viewing party option that turns that screen into a shared virtual theater where they can all watch the same media.

Nreal intends to expand the Air glasses’ rollout in 2022, and a spokesperson says the US is a “major market” for the company, although it hasn’t announced plans to ship there. As with the Light, it’s going to be selling the glasses in partnership with major phone carriers; it hasn’t named specific partners, but it’s previously worked with Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, Korea’s LG Uplus, and Japan’s KDDI.

An Nreal spokesperson says the company developed the Air after realizing that most users were primarily either using the glasses to watch streaming video (and to a lesser extent, browse the web) or to develop apps for the platform. In Korea, around 78 percent of users watched streaming content with the glasses. “Consumers today are seeking lighter, but longer lasting AR glasses exclusively for streaming media and working from home,” company founder Chi Xu said in a statement. According to Nreal, the lack of cameras is also supposed to reassure bystanders that the glasses don’t threaten their privacy.

Nreal is one of a handful of consumer smart glasses, and these results could hint at what people actually want from AR headsets. But Nreal also hasn’t made a concerted play for experiences that mix the real and virtual worlds — a use case that other companies like Facebook have emphasized more heavily. Instead, it’s focusing on something it already knows people love: binge watching video.