Nreal is for sure one of the most interesting AR startups on the market. It got the attention of all the press at CES 2019 revealing an AR glass that is light, fashionable, and affordable. In 2020, it consolidated its product with a series of partnerships and a solid product development plan. There is much interest in this company, but also some skepticism since it promises to sell AR glasses for only $500, while its competitors cost all $2-3000.
Thanks to my friends at Nreal and FXG, I’ve been able to receive a devkit of this device, so that I can experiment with it and review it. After I have analyzed the device is so time for me to write a detailed review about it. Are you ready?
NReal Light Devkit Video Review
For everyone of you that doesn’t want to read thousands of words, I’ve prepared a very nice review video about this device. It doesn’t contain 100% the information of the written article, but it’s a very good summary. Enjoy!
If you want to go deeper, go on reading my written review.
Nreal Light devkit vs consumer edition
Before starting, let me make a clarification: what I’ve tried is the Nreal Light devkit, that is the edition that is currently being shipped by the Chinese company, while the consumer edition should begin the release in Q3 this year. The two versions will be almost equivalent, with the main differences being that the devkit:
- Is being released with almost no applications on it;
- Has a very rough UI;
- May have some software bugs;
- Still doesn’t have all the features (it still misses hands tracking, for instance);
- Must work connected to a computational unit, while the consumer version will be connected to your phone;
- Costs around $1200, while the consumer version will be around $500.
This review regards the devkit at its current status, and some things may remain the same also in the consumer version (e.g. the optics), while others will surely change (e.g. the consumer version will have a very fancy UI called Nebula).
- Weight: 88g
- Connectivity: USB-C compatible
- Optics: Combined Lightguide
- FOV: 52°
- Maximum resolution: 1080p
- Environmental Understanding: SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), 6DoF tracking, Plane detection, Image tracking
- Cameras: two tracking cameras + one RGB
- Weight: 23g
- Tracking: 3DoF
- Connection: Bluetooth
- Controls: Touchpad, Click, Haptic feedback
- Weight: 170g
- Hardware Platform: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
- Operating System: Android
This is a cool video of me unboxing the Nreal Light Devkit:
I have to say that I loved unboxing this headset: while Nreal has not reached the mastery of packaging that Oculus has, it has done a great job: the external box is in a very elegant silver color, and the case of the glasses is small and beautiful. The case is also very well structured inside, and lets you easily put all the component in an ordered way. I think the Chinese company has done a great job of giving its users a very good unboxing experience.
The stereotype of the Chinese company is all about doing things with cheap manufacturing and terrible aesthetics. Nreal shows that this stereotype is false and that Chinese companies can also do something good-looking.
The Nreal Light glasses are very light and fashionable, and they look a lot like standard trendy sunglasses. Even the controller, with its nice rounded design, looks cute. Design-wise, they are very cool.
Giving a more detailed look at the glasses, we can see that on the front there are two tracking cameras at the sides and an RGB camera at the center. The lenses look transparent but also darkened.
The two external sides of the glasses have nothing worth mentioning, if not for a big nreal logo with a style that reminds the one of some fashion brands.
On the internal side it is possible to see another branding, plus the two speakers that are embedded into the frame.
The top view reveals how the front part with the optical elements is much bigger than the one of standard glasses.
While on the bottom you can see two little pairs of buttons: one is to reduce and increase the brightness of the display and the other one is to change the volume of the speakers. From the bottom, it is also possible to see the nosepad that makes the glass more comfortable on your nose.
The visuals of the Nreal glasses are still like the ones that I described in my hands-on session of one year ago. What is impressive at first sight is the definition of the images: thanks to the resolution of 1080p (at maximum, I’ve read that sometimes content is rendered at 720p) and very crisp colors, the augmentations appear detailed and very vivid. You will read below that I’ve been able to connect the glasses to my PC, and I was able to navigate the web and read every single piece of text easily. This is impressive, considered that this is a luxury still not available on VR headsets.
The FOV of 52° is not bad at all to be the one of an AR glass, especially on the horizontal side. On the vertical side, it feels more limited, and sometimes it may be immersion-breaking, but after you learn how to position the glasses on your nose, you get used to it. Especially because the augmentations finish exactly with the frame of the glasses, and so your brain gets used to the fact that augmentations exist only within the glasses, and this is much better than what happened with HoloLens 1, where you had an abrupt vision window.
Holograms are still slightly transparent like it happens on all other AR glasses, but thanks to the vivid colors, this is less noticeable. Vision is great in the center, while if you look at the sides of your vision, especially horizontally, where the FOV is larger, you can see at the edges things start becoming a bit blurred.
The optical system is “combined lightguide”, a fancy name to say that these glasses work by creating an image on a screen, and then using a mirror (that is on the top) to project it onto a semitransparent lens that you have in front of your eyes. Being the lens transparent, you can see through it both the real and virtual world. It’s a very simple system, with limited functionalities, but very effective to produce augmentations at this stage of the technology. Of course, you can’t expect from it multiple depth planes or things like that.
The lenses are slightly darkened to let you see the augmentations better, but this was not a big deal from my experience. What is a bit annoying, instead, is that you can see that there is the reflection game happening, because in front of your eyes you can sometimes the halo of the reflections of what you have below yourself, especially if it is something that emits light (like a smartphone).
In outdoor, during a sunny day, the glasses are simply unusable, because the augmentations become almost transparent.
The glasses are very light, and this makes them very comfortable. Also, the company provides in the box 3 nose pads, so that you can attach to your device the one that fits your nose the most. There is also magnetic support for prescription lenses so that you can avoid putting your glasses inside these glasses. The computational unit has a hook that you can use to attach it to your belt so that you can take it with you wherever you want. Nreal has done everything it could to make its device comfortable.
But I still think that comfort can be improved. The wire that goes from the glasses to the computational unit is a bit a nuisance, because sometimes it happens that you stumble on it with your left hand. The frames are a bit big, and push down the upper part of my ear. The fit on my nose is not perfect, so sometimes I have to apply little adjustments on how the glasses are on my head. If Nreal manages to fix the fit on the ears and the nose, I could wear them for hours without any issues… for now, this is not possible.
The devkit also includes a computational unit, that contains all the brain of the glasses. The unit runs over a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Chipset, offering so more horsepower than the Oculus Quest. Inside there is also the battery, and all the circuitry needed to run a little device. The operating system is a modified Android 8.0.
The unit features both USB-C and USB-Micro connections, but very strangely, it only uses the USB-C for everything: connection to the PC, charging, connection to the glasses. This creates some problems while you use it, as we’ll see later on.
On top of it, there is the controller, that is attached magnetically. This is a very smart choice to let you take your controller always with you, and avoid losing it.
On the front, there is the power button, plus an indicator that shows the power charge of the device.
Remember that you can attach the unit to your belt, so you can take always everything with you. The unit, when in charge, also charges the controller via some pogo pins, so you don’t have to charge the controller separately (this is another great choice).
One thing that truly disturbs me is that the unit when turned on emits a continuous low-volulme but high-pitch hiss that is quite annoying.
A little fact: due to their combined shape, the unit+the controller form a group called “Oreo”.
The round controller of the Nreal glasses is quite cute. It is little, but it provides all the features that you need: a touch-sensitive surface (that for instance lets you swipe), and five click zones (center, up, down, left, right). There is also a status led on top, and a switch on the back to turn it on-off.
While I love its innovative design, that for once is different from all the other VR 3DOF controllers, I think it is one of the weak points of the devkit. First of all, the round shape is not perfectly ergonomic for the hand: especially if you have to keep the thumb on top of it, it requires the hand to always be in tension. Then since it is round, it doesn’t grip at all with the hand, and it may move in your hand while you use it. The mix of these two problems make sure that if you have to perform the down click, the pose of the hand becomes uncomfortable because the thumb must bend down to press the correct region of the controller, but this also makes your hand lose completely the grip on the controller, that so seems that it can slip away.
But apart from ergonomics, the real deal is the 3DOF tracking. While on the Oculus Go I had no problems with accepting it, on a 6DOF AR headset like Nreal Light, the 3DOF controller is a big limitation. Every time that you want to interact with the augmentations, especially the 3D ones that you put on planes, the controller doesn’t follow your hands, and this makes the interactions really clunky. And since there is not hands tracking yet (it is coming soon, the company told me), interactions with the Nreal Light devkit feel very limited.
Anyway, remember that the controller is only part of the devkit and not of the final release as well.
When I reviewed the Nreal glasses in China, I underlined that the tracking was one of its weak points: the objects moved quite a lot while I was moving in the environment. The good news is that this has improved a lot. Holograms are still not anchored in space like on a HoloLens (that has a perfect tracking), and still move when you move, but that movement is now little. It is still noticeable, but it is shorter in time and in spatial extension than before and I think that now it is acceptable. I’ve been positively impressed by it.
Also the detection of planes in the environments around you works quite well. It is a bit rough (ARKit does a better job) and usually it detects planes bigger than they actually are, but it is good to start putting augmentations on your floor, or your table, or your bed. Image tracking is not that fluid, but it works.
Have a look at the plane detection + tracking at work on my glasses:
I’ve tried tracking also outdoor, and it keeps working quite well.
Nreal Light features integrated audio, and it doesn’t let you use your own set of headphones through an external jack. The audio volume is very good, and it is easy to hear what the headset emits. The audio quality is not the same as my Sennheiser headphones, though, and as usual in these cases, there are some problems with the basses.
The company claims 3 hours of battery time for the computational unit (remember that the glasses have no battery inside), and my tests confirm this datum. Of course the actual battery time may vary depending on what you are doing with the device.
The glasses run on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, one generation after the Snapdragon 835 of the Quest. It is hard to say what this means in terms of performances, first of all because there are no particularly heavy applications for it to use as benchmarks; and then because if you see some stuttering it is hard to say if it is because of the graphical burden, or the SLAM tracking, the video recording or whatever else.
One problem that I’ve noticed during the use is that both the computational unit and the headset may become very warm during the use.
Setup and usage
Theoretically, the setup of the Nreal glasses devkit is very straightforward: you attach the glasses to the computational unit, you turn it on, you wear the glasses, and you’re done. There is a pamphlet of instructions, but it is pretty useless.
The problem is that I did like that, and things were not working very well: the applications crashed continuously, the controller was losing the tracking every minute or such, and it was very annoying. I so contacted my friends at FXG, that instructed me that I had to update the firmware. Fancy to say, the headset at startup said very confidently there were no updates.
Welcome to the world of the weirdness of the computational unit. The communication with the computational unit happens by plugging it in to your PC via USB-C, and to do that you have to unplug your glasses. The fact that every time you want to tweak the computational unit you have to remove the glasses is a big nuisance. It is even more weird that there is no device management tool, so Nreal itself advises its users to just use the opensource tool Scrcpy to interact with its “virtual screen” as you would interact with any other Android device. Having been used to the amazing management tools offered by HoloLens, I was pretty much turned down by this. Probably Nreal is not wasting too much time on this since in the future your glass will be connected to your Android phone, but I still think that a management tool may be useful, especially for developers.
So to perform the update, I had to use Scrcpy and interact with the Settings of the operating system of the unit to connect the device to the Wi-fi, and then I had to play with the settings until the system offered me an update. After a long update download, I was ready to go and the device started working much better. All bugs that were taunting me vanished away.
The glasses continuously remind you that they’re actually working as displays of an Android system: when you launch Unity applications, you see the visuals split in two for the duration of the splash screen; when you change the volume, you see the standard volume bar of Android moving (split in two, of course). This is weird, and I hope it will change in future releases.
Talking about the UI, for sure you have seen everywhere the cool visuals of the Nebula UI that Nreal has announced.
Forget it completely for the devkit: here there is almost no UI and the start menu is just made of 3 icons: one is for the settings, and two are stock demos. The settings just let you set the brightness, volume, and see if there are updates for the device. Sorry to say that they don’t even let you set the Wi-fi connection, for that you have to use Scrcpy.
Also, there is no tool for instance to stream what the user is seeing on the glasses to your smartphone, and this is a problem when you have to demo your application.
This was just to say that now the experience feels a bit limited (there is no content, and a very limited UI), and clunky (for the setup part). But again, this is an early devkit, so this is part of the game. The Oculus DK2 crashed continuously, and had a very simple runtime, for instance.
For everything a bit different that you want to do, you have to look up in the documentation, or ask on the Slack channel or on Reddit. Or maybe you have to build it yourself. It feels like the old days of VR, and even if it may be frustrating, it gives that “early days” touch that we developers love so much.
The devkit comes with pre-installed two sets of demos: one is a collection of 5 little demos that show you simple object interactions and video playback; the other one is a long showreel of animated 3D elements. They’re nice, but in 10 minutes you have seen them all.
If you go to Nreal website, you can also find their latest game Nreal Tower, that is an online multiplayer tower-defense game that works on an image marker. It is a nice simple game, and it also shows the many limitations of having just a 3DOF controller (shooting with a 3DOF hand is terrible).
This is a devkit, so it supposes you are going to build the applications yourself.
The NRSDK is Nreal’s SDK that lets you develop applications using the popular Unity game engine. It features:
- Augmented reality visualization;
- Planes detection;
- Image markers tracking;
- Video Playback;
- Capture of the mixed reality view of the user;
- UI interaction.
It also gives you all the tools to let you start developing Unity applications for the Nreal glasses even if you don’t have the device. At the time of writing it doesn’t work with Unity 2019, but only with Unity 2018.
To learn about it, there is some documentation on the website, plus you can analyze the many samples that the SDK includes (probably sooner or later they’ll have to separate the samples from the main package), and also reading the comments. I myself have written a guide on how to get started with it.
The SDK is not hard to master, and I started creating some little experiences starting from the samples pretty soon.
What in my opinion still lacks is a series of features (like hands tracking, gestures tracking, voice recognition, etc…) that for instance, HoloLens offers out of the box. And here comes another discussion about the platform. HoloLens is winning over Magic Leap because it is inserted in the context of a great platform (great SDK, Azure AI/ML/Cloud services, Microsoft tools like Teams, etc…). Nreal has still to build a similar platform to give developers all the necessary tools to create AR applications that are really compelling for its users. It is working well and growing fast, but at the moment, again, it still feels like “early days”.
The Nreal Light features also some nice-to-have functionalities. One is that you can create applications that record what the user is seeing in front of him, so mixing the real and the virtual content.
The other one, that surprised me, is that you can actually connect your glasses to the USB C port of your Laptop. When you do so, your computer detects the glasses as a secondary display, and so you can mirror the content of your PC on your glasses. I’ve tried it, and I was impressed by the fact that, thanks to the 1080p resolution, I could actually use the Nreal glasses to read content, and I could use them to surf the web and listen to music on Youtube pretty easily. Also the audio of the PC comes out from the speakers of the glasses when it is in this mode. I loved it. I also used this mode to write some chapters of this article :O
Price and availability
The Nreal Light Devkit is already available on Nreal website for $1199. You can order it now and receive it in 1-2 months.
The Consumer version is expected to come starting from Q3 this year.
Wrapping it up, I can say that I like a lot the Nreal Light devkit. The glasses are fashionable and light, and the augmentations are bright. The main features like plane and image detection are there. Others, like hands tracking (thanks to partnership with Clay AIR) and eye tracking (thanks to a partnership with 7Invensun) are coming. The tracking is not perfect, but it is good enough to work. You can already develop with it applications using the Unity SDK.
Of course, it is not perfect: being it a devkit, some features are missing (like the mirroring to the smartphone), some others are a bit weird (like the setup of the Wi-fi), some crashes happen, the tracking is under improvement, and there is no content available. But much of this is going to improve with the consumer version. And then we developers like the challenges of early-stage devices.
Should you buy it?
If you are looking for an AR headset on which you can start developing applications, an AR headset that may give you a taste of how consumer-oriented AR can be in 2020-2021, then yes, absolutely this is the device for you.
If you have a company that may benefit from having fashionable AR glasses (I think about fashion firms) to do events or marketing stunts, then absolutely yes.
If you want a perfectly working AR headset no, wait for a consumer release.
If you have a big industry, no, go for HoloLens that has a complete ecosystem that can help your business better.
That’s the end of this super-long review! I hope you’ve enjoyed it… and if you have any question on this AR headset, don’t hesitate to ask me them on the comments of this post or on my social media channels!
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