If you want in on proper mixed reality headsets right now, it's going to cost you. Microsoft's HoloLens 2 is priced at $3,500 while Magic Leap One costs just shy of $3,000. It's a big part of the reason why these high-end devices are aimed at developers and businesses who have the financial clout to own them.
So what about everyone else? It feels like we are still some time away from Apple's first foray into this space and it'll probably be the same for Google. Who's going to fill the void or perhaps even lead the space until then? Step forward Nreal, a startup based out of China, headed by a former Magic Leap engineer, that wants to bring mixed reality tech to living rooms everywhere in 2019.
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It's hoping to achieve that with its pair of Light smartglasses that deliver mixed reality from what look like a regular pair of shades. Nreal's CEO Chi Xu tells us that it hasn't decided on pricing of the Light specs, which are slated to launch later this year. But it will be significantly less than Microsoft's and Magic Leap's setups that's for sure. It'll be less than $1,000 when bought with Nreal's own external computing pack, but if you just buy the specs on their own, it will be even less. That's because the Light eyewear can be powered by a smartphone as well, and will work with handsets that run on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 5G mobile platform.
I've been eager to try these out since they were first announced at CES back in January. It's almost the finished version, Xu tells me, but it has plans to make these glasses fold just like a normal pair of glasses to hopefully add to their appeal.
Before I get into what they are like to use, I need to talk about the nitty gritty of how they work and what makes that mixed reality magic possible. At its core you have a very lightweight (just 85g) pair of glasses with nose guards to help make them comfortable to wear for prolonged period of use. These frames also pack in integrated speakers that sit in close proximity to the ears.
At the front are two cameras that are able to deliver a 1080p HD resolution display and offer 52-degree field of view. The lenses are interchangeable prescription lenses to make them more accessible for more people, and there's an additional disc-shaped controller that offers three degrees of freedom to enhance that mixed reality experience. The power all comes from either Nreal's own CPU or a compatible Android smartphone. In my demo the power was provided by Nreal's own CPU.
The first thing you notice is that these glasses do just feel like glasses. Magic Leap One is surprisingly light to wear, but they are every bit a pair of techy goggles. The Light offer a more desirable form factor that is undoubtedly what the tech needs to give it mainstream appeal. But you know these are tech-filled glasses thanks to the wire sticking out from the frame that tethers to the power. You've also got those two cameras that sit above the two lenses up front. Crucially, they don't feel bulky or cumbersome to wear and the weight (or lack of it) is a massive plus here.
That mixed reality feeling
What I get to experience with the Light smartglasses is a mixture of things. The first has nothing to do with mixed reality whatsoever and is essentially a showcase of how the glasses can also be used as a personal viewer device. So somewhere to watch your movies or next Netflix binge session on. I'm sampling an action trailer in front of me on a display that is impressively high resolution. I can use the additional controller, which is pretty basic looking thing, to move the screen around the room letting me watch from any position. I also get to view footage from a football match shot in VR and again it's the resolution that really stands out here.
Next up is the mixed reality stuff. It's just a handful of demos including some fighting robots and a small orange cat walking around. It's nothing particularly jaw-dropping, but it does work, the resolution is crisp and it didn't feel shoddy or gimmicky. The audio performance from the speakers reminds me a lot of the ones packed onto the Magic Leap One. They don't roar with power, but in isolation away from the crowds it'll probably just about cut it to enhance that MR experience.
Xu assures me that it's working to make sure there's plenty of mixed reality content to sample along with the hardware's launch, and it's working with partners to make that happen. Whether it will be collaborating with the big names that Magic Leap has been working with since it launched its first piece of hardware remains to be seen.
It's clear that Nreal's ambition here is to bring mixed reality to more people. And that's a large part of why companies like Qualcomm and LG are working with the startup to help make that happen. It definitely has a few things in its favour right now.
The first is form factor. People are not going to feel weird about wearing these in their home. The other big plus is that these are not just about mixed reality, and clearly Nreal hopes to convince people to buy them not just for those mixed reality experiences, but also for viewing films or other immersive content.
There's also the price. It's still not going to be cheap, but it's certainly going to be more in the pricing realms of a top end smartphone.
From a mixed reality experience perspective, what Nreal has right now works – not in any grand way, but it works. I'm now intrigued to see what more its tech is capable of, and hopefully willing partners and developers will give it those experiences to make the most of the technology.
What I can say though, is that what I've seen with the Nreal Light so far provides me with hope that proper mixed reality is a lot closer to being in our homes than I first thought.
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