I firmly believe that augmented reality is the future. While smartphones are currently the pinnacle of accessible technology, putting the phone’s information in front of your face has the possibility to change the way we interact with everything. That’s why it pains me so much to be utterly disappointed by NReal Air, the next-generation of AR glasses.
While Apple and Meta work on their own version of AR glasses, NReal’s latest product is a second-generation idea of what the tech can be. Unfortunately, the promise of true augmented reality glasses, a lightweight heads-up display, a lá Halo, in front of your face is far from realised. However, it’s a dream that feels only just out of reach.
Despite their “Air” moniker, the new generation of glasses are not actually wireless devices. The rear of the glasses connect to a smartphone via a USB-C to USB-C cable, which then interfaces with the all-new Nebula app, currently only available on Android. An iOS app is on the way, but right now this ostracises a large audience and limits the glasses’ widespread adoption.
In the app, there are two options for using your AR glasses. Air Casting simply uses the glasses as a mirrored display, perfectly duplicating your phone’s screen inside your glasses. Alternatively, there’s AR Space, a 360-degree space that you can use to spawn multiple windows of different apps in a 3D space. You can have YouTube in the corner, a web browser in another and a mixture of other supported apps, mostly basic AR games, in between.
AR Space is the software that NReal Air is designed around; it’s what AR should be. However, its implementation is far from ideal, relying on your smartphone’s screen to control. It also supports very few apps. Instead of feeling like a grand launch of the future, it felt like a sparse market stall at the end of a car boot sale. There’s just nothing but tat here.
For example, one of the all-time best uses of AR glasses is map navigation. Instead of constantly looking down at your phone to use Google Maps, navigation could just be in the corner of your view. However, NReal’s AR Space doesn’t support a map app — at least in the UK — so what’s the solution?
In my testing, I used Google Maps with Air Casting, completely mirroring my device to have navigation right in front of my face. As it clones your entire screen in central view, most of your vision is taken up by your map screen. Furthermore, running an app this way requires your phone screen to stay on in your jeans pocket.
Walking outside with the NReal Air AR glasses is cumbersome, especially using the device this way. Sure, watching a YouTube video in AR Space is doable, if still clunky, but the actually usefulness of the hardware feels missing. It’s generations away from where it needs to be, despite Google being there in 2013.
NReal Air’s clunkiness doesn’t just exist in software form, the hardware also suffers in numerous ways. Mainly, the wired nature of the device means that you’ll always have a USB-C cable dangling out the back of your head when using the machine.
However, if you’re not an Android phone user, you’re in for one hell of a clunk-fest. To get the hardware working on iPhones, you’ll need a lightning to HDMI Adapter, an NReal HDMI adapter (sold separately) and then a connection to the glasses.
In our worst case scenario, we used the Google Maps test on an iPhone 13. Bundling all these cables and adapters together through my clothes and into my pockets, wires were still spilling out of me. As my vision was obscured on the way to the local Starbucks, glasses on top of my prescription as prescription lenses have to be custom made, I was disorientated, uncomfortable and almost squashed by a Kia.
That’s not to say that NReal Air doesn’t have its positives. In a dark room, using the glasses with Netflix or YouTube can give you the feeling of a large screen display right in front of your eyes. It’s good for an episode of Star Trek, or a quick flick, but I personally found the display rather headache- inducing.
It’s worth noting that there is already an established fanbase that swear by the hardware, using the glasses as a large display for, say, a Steam Deck. Personally, I tried playing Modern Warfare 2 on the AR glasses and found myself feeling more motion sick than an entire day of VR would make me. As someone with healthy VR legs, it took me by surprise to be so nauseated when using the NReal Air. Combined with headaches after just an hour or so of using them, the glasses were just unusable outside of a couple of YouTube videos for me.
Perhaps NReal’s glasses aren’t for me. I can see them working for someone, but for myself I find them rather pointless. It’s clear that we’re not ready for AR glasses; or NReal isn’t ready to deliver what we need. Nevertheless, I have faith that AR will succeed one day -… it just might be years further away than we all thought.