Nreal’s $380 AR glasses want to be a virtual screen for MacBooks

Real Air + Macbook
Enlarge / Nreal depicts someone using the Air glasses to extend their MacBook desktop.

Unreal

As augmented reality (AR) glasses continue to try to carve out a place among tech enthusiasts, we’re seeing another option available en masse in the United States. In addition to selling the sunglass-like Nreal Air specs in America, Beijing-based company Nreal also announced today a version of its Nebula AR operating system that will work with Apple M1 and M2-powered MacBooks.

The Mac version of Nebula works with MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops with Apple silicon and is launching as a beta. Mounting the Air glasses on a MacBook doesn’t give you the same Nebula “AR Space” experience available for supported Android phones. AR Space includes a mixed reality interface and games and other AR apps made for the glasses. Instead, Mac users will see a virtual interface that Nreal calls AR Desktop and projects up to three virtual screens at a time, an Nreal representative told Ars Technica. An Nreal representative would not specify when AR Space would come to MacBooks or iOS.

In a statement, Nreal co-founder Peng Jin said the company expects AR glasses to initially gain traction among consumers by serving as a display technology, so “the thinking behind Nreal Air is very focused on the aesthetics, display quality and its connection with other hardware devices.”

Currently, you can connect Nreal’s Air to a Windows PC or iPhone, but only for screen mirroring that mimics a 130-inch monitor that’s 13.1 feet away (compared to a 201-inch monitor that’s 19.7 feet away in AR Space mode).

Nreal also announced today the Nreal Adapter for iPhone, a bulky block that lets you plug in an HDMI-to-Lightning dongle so you can plug in your iPhone. You can also use the adapter to attach Nreal Air to a Nintendo Switch to feel like you’re playing on a big screen.

However, even with the iPhone adapter, functionality is limited to screen mirroring. Still, it’s at least somewhat reassuring to see Nreal expand support, even a little. Although having to wear glasses attached to a phone already feels cumbersome; adding a 2.42×1.79×0.88, 2.61 ounce brick to the mix only makes matters worse.

The iPhone is attached to a dongle, which is attached to the adapter, which is attached to a cable, which is attached to the glasses, which are attached to the user's face.
Enlarge / The iPhone is attached to a dongle, which is attached to the adapter, which is attached to a cable, which is attached to the glasses, which are attached to the user’s face.

Unreal

Air’s most robust AR experience remains reserved for supported Android devices. They’ll be the ones to take advantage of Nebula’s updates announced today, including a new “borderless, curved wall design,” animated 3D icons, and a content recommendation widget.

Nreal updated the Nebula web browser, Spatial AR, to offer two viewing modes (horizontal or vertical). It also added a few new “casual” AR games and experiences to Nebula, including Teleport, which lets users “jump through 3D models of real-world structures scanned by their smartphones and leave photos, text and voice messages for other users to see” – although we don’t expect there to be many other users here.

I tried some of Nebula’s AR experiences ahead of the release of its first glasses, Nreal Light. Even at the early stage, the graphics came through pretty strong and crisp, but the navigation was far from intuitive and the games weren’t detailed enough to warrant frequent play. Things may have improved now, but even the best AR games and experiences are far from mainstream, especially compared to console and PC games.

Nreal's Nebula AR operating system still only works with certain Android phones.
Enlarge / Nreal’s Nebula AR operating system still only works with certain Android phones.

Unreal

Nreals Air claims 3840×1080 resolution, 108 percent sRGB coverage, 100,000:1 contrast and a 60 Hz refresh rate with its Micro OLED displays. A scaled-down version of the more expensive ($600) light, the Air has a 46-degree field of view (FOV) compared to 52 degrees for the light and 3 degrees of freedom (DoF) compared to the light’s 6-DoF tracking.

We haven’t tried Nreal’s Air yet, but reviews from sites like Tech Advisor and TechRadar pointed to stronger image quality but clunky navigation and limited AR functionality and phone compatibility. At the time of writing, the only apps AR Space supports are Amazon, Cycling, Google, Message, PhotoGun, Pupup, QB Planets, Teleport, YouTube, Yahoo, Wikipedia. And Nreal says battery life is limited to up to 5 hours of video streaming.

Enthusiasts have few options when it comes to true consumer AR glasses, despite companies like Meta and Apple showing interest. A potentially strong competitor to the Air is the upcoming Lenovo Glasses T1. Unlike Air, functionality is expected to be the same across Android, PC, iOS and macOS products (iPhones require an adapter). The glasses are specified with 1920×1080-per-eye resolution, Micro OLED panels, a 60 Hz refresh rate and 38-degree FOV. They are supposed to start coming out next year with a price expected to stay under $500.

The Nreal Air has an MSRP of $379 and the adapter costs $59.

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