How A Former Magic Leap Engineer Built A Pair Of Lighter, More Affordable AR Glasses

The nReal Light, a new portable set of augmented reality glasses introduced at CES today.BEN SIN

They’ve long conquered our pockets and have begun to take over our wrists, but the final step for digital gadgets to take over our lives is perhaps on our heads. Ever since Google launched its ambitious but ultimately flawed smart glasses (named Google Glass) back in 2013, companies have been trying to create similar portable head-mounted displays that can broadcast digital information in front of our faces — think the holographic displays Tony Stark sees inside his Iron Man suit in the Marvel movies.

Different from VR headsets in that they overlay content on real life scenes (instead of VR, which is meant to be fully immersive to remove the user from reality), this is a product category that’s been called either AR (augmented reality) or MR (mixed reality) glasses. But whatever the description is, the current options available, whether it’s Microsoft’s HoloLens or Magic Leap’s One, are perhaps too bulky to be worn out and about without attracting weird stares.

“That’s the thing I realized — people get really self-conscious when they wear something bulky over their head in public,” said Chi Xu, a former engineer at U.S.-based Magic Leap. “I knew there was major potential with [AR glasses], I just didn’t share their design philosophy.”

So, Xu left in late 2016, moved back to his native Beijing, and cofounded the startup nReal to make his own AR glasses.

Two years later, Xu thinks the product is ready. Unveiled today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the nReal Light is, the company claims, the lightest and most portable AR glasses available yet.

I met with Xu in Hong Kong two weeks before CES to try out the Light, and it is, at 85g, quite a bit lighter and less bulky than the 325g Magic Leap One. In fact, the Light almost resembles normal sunglasses at first glance.

The glasses itself has two 1080p displays — one for each spectacle — each with 52 degrees of field 0f vision that combine to pump out visuals that are relatively vibrant and hi-res. Inside the glasses are also a series of sensors to track head movement and tiny speakers at the end of each temple tip (the part of the glasses that rests on top of the ear).

The chipset — a Snapdragon 845 — and battery are housed in a small box that needs to be tethered to the glasses for operation. It runs Android, but has been heavily customized with software algorithms designed and written by Xu and his team of 70-plus people.

A product render of the nReal Light.NREAL

Me wearing the nReal Light (left) vs the Magic Leap (right).BEN SIN

So, what can it do? During my demo, I was able to watch videos in this floating, holographic format that seems to be superimposed onto the real world. As I moved my head around, the video (a movie trailer) remained centered in front of me, overlaying on top of walls, furniture, even people.

That’s the most basic use. Other demos I tested include an interactive game that had me shooting incoming asteroids. This required a separate bluetooth controller. Another game had me playing with a virtual kitten that followed my head movements — this one didn’t need a controller. There were other demos such as going on a tour with a life-sized holographic tour guide.

The problem with covering these type of products is I can’t really show footage to readers, as the digital imagery couldn’t quite translate over to photos, but I found footage to be stable, smooth, and didn’t give me a headache like VR content.

Each display pumps out visuals in 1080p resolution.BEN SIN

The nReal Light in black.BEN SIN

The Light connects to its box via USB-C, and yes, Xu says the use of the universal cable was intentional, as the Light is meant to be compatible with a wide variety of devices including smartphones. Currently, plugging the Light into phones that support display output will result in a floating smartphone screen in front of the user’s face. This, in theory, means the Light can run Huawei’s “EMUI desktop mode” since it only requires a USB-C output connection to activate the mode. Sadly, I left my Huawei phone at home the day of the demo and didn’t get to test it myself.

Xu says nReal is currently working with Xiaomi and a major US-based chipset maker that can’t be named yet to develop content exclusively for the Light. Even if this content never arrives, the Light should have no shortage of AR content as it is essentially an Android device.

Chi Xu, co-founder of nReal.NREAL

The reason Xu, who obtained a Ph.D. in computer architecture at the University of Minnesota and had worked in Silicon Valley for years even before joining Magic Leap, chose to leave the states and move back to Beijing to start nReal was because China offered the best access to supply chains, which keeps production cost down. This allows the nReal Light to be priced significantly cheaper than U.S.-based competitors.

At the time of writing this article, nReal had not decided on a final price, but Xu told me it should be around $1,000. This includes the glasses, the box, and the controller.

The nReal Light will come in a variety of colors, including the black and orange seen here.BEN SIN