Ex-Magic Leap employee launches mixed reality glasses Nreal Light in bid to capture potential tech hotspot

  • Nreal operates in an area where big technology names such as Magic Leap and Microsoft have been pumping in billions of dollars of investment
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 6:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 11:07am

A portal ringed with fire had just opened up right in front of my eyes. Stepping through it, I was immediately transported to a 360-degree galaxy environment, where an astronaut floated past me, so close that I could walk around him to examine the details on his white and orange suit.

No, I wasn’t hallucinating, I was wearing a pair of “mixed reality glasses”, produced by Beijing-based start-up Nreal and unveiled ahead of the CES 2019 tech fair, which allow virtual environments or objects to be projected into a real environment for learning and leisure pursuits, such as gaming and videos.

The Nreal Light glasses impress because of the high-definition, 1080p resolution graphics and 52-degree field of vision – the area that a person can see while wearing the glasses. This is currently the widest field of vision available with such glasses, beating out rivals like Magic Leap and Microsoft’s Hololens.

The field of vision is so wide, I felt as though I had a projector screen right in front of me.

For Xu Chi, chief executive and founder of Beijing-based Nreal, these lightweight [85 grams] mixed reality glasses could be the next big hardware trend, especially once they achieve a form similar to the ordinary glasses that people wear every day.

“Ultimately we want to blend virtual content and virtual information with reality, and do it so well that people can hardly notice the difference,” said Xu Chi, who used to work for Florida-based Magic Leap. “The technology is there and it is ready, and what we want to do is build affordable mixed reality glasses that can give users a stunning experience in the very near future.”

Nreal – whose name is a play on the words “real” and “unreal” – operates in a space where big technology names such as Magic Leap and Microsoft have been pumping in billions of dollars of investment.

The race is on to produce an augmented or mixed reality headset that is both lightweight and functional while promising the kind of magic that consumers have heard about for years through movies such as Minority Report – where graphics are superimposed on your natural environment with such high quality you can barely distinguish them from reality.

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The potential market for companies like Nreal is lucrative. In 2019, about 35 million head-mounted displays, such as VR and AR headsets or glasses, are expected to ship. This will rise to about 80.2 million in 2022, according to estimates from research firm Gartner, making it one of the fastest-growing categories of wearables. Research by Goldman Sachs predicts that the world’s augmented and virtual reality industry will be worth US$80 billion by 2025.

This kind of augmented reality technology has not caught on though in either the US or China — yet. The big challenge is design and functionality. The glasses need be comfortable for long-term wear, avoid the nerd factor and solve a real customer need.

Google pioneered augmented reality glasses in 2012 with its Google Glass spectacles, which allowed users to do simple tasks like search the internet, take pictures and make calls. Google Glass never really took off though — falling into the ‘before its time’ category of inventions — amid claims of poor marketing, too high a price tag at around US$1,500, no clear use factor and unappealing looks.

Since then US-based Magic Leap — the secretive mixed reality company which raised US$2.3 billion in funding and became known for its jaw-dropping YouTube demos as well as the non-disclosure agreements it required visitors to its headquarters to sign – has started producing headsets that, while clunky, promise to give users a more immersive experience for games and other entertainment.

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Xu said he has tried to strike a balance between the two, to come up with a lightweight device that still offers users an immersive experience. Xu has a background in computer architecture and used to work for Magic Leap and chip maker Nvidia. He returned to China in 2016 to strike out on his own and take mixed reality hardware in a new direction.

“From the very beginning, we wanted to make Nreal’s glasses complementary to a smartphone, not replace it from the get-go with a first-generation product [like some of our rivals],” Xu said, adding that Nreal made use of existing technology, whether chips or components, to give users the best experience. This method ensured that Nreal would be able to create production-level glasses that could be easily shipped to customers.

“The experience at first starts with several killer apps or use cases … and we are in talks with some smartphone makers that could have smartphones tether directly to the Nreal Light glasses,” he said. This would allow users to view content on their smartphones, whether movies or even videos, via their glasses.

Only when components have shrunk and the form factor becomes really appealing to consumers, can glasses like Nreal Light be able to replace smartphones, according to Xu.

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Nreal uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 Mobile VR Platform, and has raised US$15 million from investors such as Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital and Baidu’s iQiyi, especially as the latter looks to explore new digital entertainment formats.

Nreal hopes to first launch its devices in China and the US in the third quarter of this year, where the market for augmented and virtual reality is more mature. Although prices have yet to be set, Xu said that he hopes to offer the Nreal Light at a price point similar to what it might cost to buy a high-end smartphone in the market today.