Way back in 1998 I saw Lost in Space (the movie) and was fascinated by their portrayal of augmented reality. It wasn’t the first time AR was presented as technology that would be common in our future, but it was done in a way that made it seem fairly realistic. I remember hoping the fictional system would become reality in my time. Fast forward twenty-five years and AR is on the verge of becoming a real thing.
In my line of work, I can end up working in cramped spaces like server rooms (aka closets), IDFs (aka also closets), or a stolen sliver of someone else’s desk. I’ve been using the “sidecar” technique of turning whatever tablet I have handy into a second monitor since the idea was invented. There isn’t always room to setup like that where I need to work. I’ve been waiting for a hi fidelity, lightweight, hands-free display. Keep my goals in mind while reading my thoughts on the Nreal Air Glasses. I bought them for a very specific reason, to use them as a hands and desk-space free external monitor for various devices. Anything else they do is gravy.
I’ve tried a few display goggles and smart glasses over the years. Until now, they’ve always left me extremley disappointed. Most often because they were uncomfortable. There have also been some severe battery limitations, connectivity challenges, and other fundamental flaws that kept the previous contenders from being useful. More than one set had low resolution and suffered from blurry text when used as a computer display.
Enter the Nreal Air. Essentially a pair of OLED micro-screens mounted in slightly oversized sunglass frames with clever prisms to control the light you see. The screens are combined with speakers and microphones in the earpieces. There is a USB-C connector on the back of one ear. You’ll find tiny buttons for on/off and brightness control on the bottom edge of the other. That’s it. No batteries, no setup, plug in one cable and go. Connect them into anything that can output video and audio through USB-C, or Thunderbolt (aka Alt-DP Mode) and they work. Most Windows, Macs, Linux, many Android devices, even the Steam Deck, will automatically recognize the glasses as an external 1080P 60 Hertz/FPS display.
If you want to use them with an iPhone or other systems that need HDMI, you are going to need some adapters. Nreal makes a USB-C to HDMI adapter that is available for purchase separately, or as a bundle. The sixty-dollar adapter is powered by a built-in rechargeable battery to run the glasses since HDMI doesn’t typically include power distribution. I’ve used the adapter to connect the Airs to my iPhone, iPad, Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation without issue. The adapter is designed specifically to work with Apple’s Lightning to HDMI adapter, which you’ll also need to purchase separately.
The Air glasses feel a tad heavier than my normal reading pair when wearing them. The bridge of the glasses’ frame is considerably thicker than standard eye-glass frames. It makes sense, there are two computer screens and a bunch of electronics in there. For me, this thickness makes positioning the nose piece at the bridge of my nose challenging. I spent some time flexing and bending the metal nose piece support to get a good fit. I was eventually able to get them to rest in a comfortable position. The adjustable angles provided by the ear pieces really help.
The Airs connect with a single lightweight cable for both signal and power. They don’t need any headphones or earbuds, all though it is easy to use them to improve the soundstage. They stay in position on my face. The lightweight glasses are comfortable for long periods, I’ve worn them for entire eight-hour work days. They’re always ready and don’t get hot because their power comes from the device.
There are bigger and more awkward looking fashion frames in the world. Counting on the look to be the excuse against purchasing tech gadgets isn’t as reliable as it used to be. These look and feel like the oversized glasses you get after an eye exam. I’ve had the Airs on in the grocery store, while walking the dog, and even at an old-fashioned IRL conference. No one has given me a second glance, that I noticed anyway. P.S. They were a lifesaver for combating boredom while waiting in line at the conference.
My co-workers spotted them pretty quickly when I wore them at my desk. Several tried them on and I think they were shocked at how good the displays actually are. The biggest drawback has nothing to do with the design or capabilities. People seem to think the four-hundred-dollar base price is too steep.
Most face-worn displays are opaque googles, but you can see through these lenses. There are some obstructions from the prisms if you look for them, but they are generally not in the way. Transparency of the image is controlled by changing the brightness. When turned up to full, the image can be seen outside, but in bright sunlight it helps to face something that provides background contrast. Turning down the brightness allows you to float your display over the real world in a very pleasing way. This trick works best in darker indoor environments, but they work even in our super-bright office without trouble.
For a more private or immersive experience, there is a snap on shield that makes the front view completely opaque. I find that I use them equally in “see-though” and “private” modes. The “see-though” mode is what impresses people most when trying the Air glasses for the first time. This mode is also why they tend to be classified as augmented reality glasses.
I use them more often than I had expected to when I first decided to purchase them. I have them hooked up to my MacBook Air writing this post right now. No matter how my head is positioned, the screen I’m working on is centered in my vision. The ergonomic and comfort advantages of the glasses over a traditional screen are significant. You don’t have to tip your chin down to see the screen while lying in bed, or are fully reclined in the easy chair.
When connected to a MacBook, the glasses can emulate three wrap-around monitors that float in space. I’m using the Nebula app right now and have this post on the center “screen”, the Nreal website on my right monitor, and a Netflix show playing on the left one. I can still see my family members going about their day and my dog begging for a bite of the pop-tart from the table next to me. I can even watch the living-room TV though the floating computer monitors. The experience is surreal.
If you have a Windows PC, you can use them as a stand-alone, duplicated, or extended screen just like any other monitor. NReal has released the beta version of the Windows Nebula app. It supports the same three-monitor trick that the Mac software does. It also allows for a single ultra-wide curved screen to float in your vision too. There are some hoops to jump through to gain access to the Windows Beta see this reddit post for the details: https://www.reddit.com/r/nreal/comments/1306xqs/nebula_for_windows_test_has_finally_begun_join_us/
Walking while wearing the Airs takes some practice, but it’s easy enough and didn’t make me feel queasy. Once you have mastered it, walking the dog will never be the same. I watched an episode of “Drive to Survive” on Netflix while walking the around the neighborhood with my pooch last evening. I ran the cable down my back, under my shirt, and kept the phone in my pocket.
I’ve used them while cooking and grilling. It is super useful to keep the recipe and video instructions you are following hovering above the food while you prepare it. Never having to look away cuts down on the burnt and overcooked results. Watching a show while literally keeping an eye on the burgers is backyard life at its best.
Any mind-numbing task that I normally put off to watch Netflix, can now be done while watching Netflix. Cleaning the house is a whole different experience when you’ve got Farzar floating above the floor you’re vacuuming. Doing the laundry, folding clothes, and doing the dishes (careful with this one, they are not water resistant) are all a little less dreary.
Watching the YouTube video instructions for fixing a broken shifter cable in my car while actually doing it, cemented the glasses’ usefulness for me. I only needed to look at the same area in my vehicle to overlay the mechanic’s video on to my broken part. The repair was much easier to follow along with. The project was also finished in less time since I didn’t have to keep going back and forth between my work and the video.
On family game nights, I have a big screen all my own. The same goes for work, having the glasses to function as a portable three-monitor stack has been extremely helpful. When I am in the field, they function as an instant private workspace and give me the screen real-estate to spread my work out. Even in a small network closet while diagnosing switch gear, I have a full desk’s worth of screens at my disposal. I can’t overstate how huge this is for field engineers.
Most of the people I know that have tried them imagine they will replace desk monitors in the very near future. The glasses themselves are very refined and feel like a fully developed product. The Nebula software can be challenging to work with in the current beta editions. Since the app isn’t absolutely required to use them, it is less of a hinderance than it might otherwise be. If you are the type of person that likes to be an early adopter and doesn’t mind some tinkering, they are fantastic right now. Mine have already earned a full time spot in my bag.