If you've ever spent serious time investigating the Chinese tech startup world, you know it's moving fast – very fast. The Beijing and Shenzhen tech startups are moving so fast that they are now in serious competition with Silicon Valley.
The most recent future competitor, calling into question Northern Ireland's tech dominance, Nreal, focuses on augmented reality and has made great strides toward mainstream in just a few years. The founder and CEO of Nreal, Xu Chi, a former engineer at Magic Leap, believes that he has a product that will normalize the migration of AR from the smartphone screen to a pair of wearables before Apple's alleged AR product from the Launch pad gets.
Recently, after testing the Nreal Light product, I had the opportunity to talk extensively with Xu about the strengths and weaknesses of the product, what the company's roadmap looks like, and how he got the status of the AR industry in the train of constant change and cutting looks at Edge Innovation.
Although Nreal Light is not yet available (release is scheduled for later this year), Xu offers some interesting insights into consumer expectations.
Next Reality: When I first met you about a year ago, the device Nreal showed was very different, showing primarily a video display rather than the fully realized augmented reality like the Nreal Light. Can you explain how you came to the new product so quickly?
Xu Chi: Actually, we presented three different designs at the time. Those were very early prototypes, so the other features were not there yet, and that was actually our first appearance. For CES we had the Nreal Light this year, which will be officially available, and this product is actually much more mature. We've just iterated and tested, and in the last few years we actually had seven iterations of the first generation product. We worked on optics, the SLAM camera, the algorithm and the other material. We actually did a lot of iterating to get to the very stable current generation [Nreal Light].
Next Reality: Next Reality: The version we saw at CES had a computer that was attached to the hip, but the version you show us now uses a smartphone. Can you explain why you have decided to go in that direction?
Xu: We have tried to make this product really, really accessible. If you look at the pod [hip-mounted computer] that we showed at CES, it was essentially a cell phone without a screen. The Qualcomm 845 chip with a battery was used for this. That made us think: "Can we use the current phones and connect them directly to our device?" We talked to Qualcomm and we have achieved that in the last few months. That's why we've been working with the Qualcomm guys in San Diego over the last few months to get this going, and we saved it up for the big show at the Mobile World Congress.
Next Reality: So now If you connect the AR goggles to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chip on Android smartphones, will you abolish the hip computer version of the product?
Xu: We give people the choice to vote.
We tried to make this product really, really accessible … That made us think, "Can we use the current phones and connect them directly to our device?"
Next Reality: Does this mean that the product Nreal Light will be cheaper if consumers decide to buy only the glasses to pair with the smartphone and the computer to skip with the hip?
Xu Of course. This makes the product more affordable and accessible because everyone has a smartphone.
Next Reality: I have not had a hand in any of the demos, including demos. Is that coming?
Xu: We do not currently have hand tracking, but we plan to add it in the future. At the moment we use a small controller with 3DoF (degrees of freedom) as well as a trackpad.
Xu: Well, I think we're doing something different. I would not compare We are building more accessible mixed-reality goggles ready for mass use. If I look at HoloLens or Magic Leap or any other AR or VR glasses, they are not glasses. They are rather helmets. They are just too big.
I think they have great technology, but if you are with these products, you do not really know that it will take off in the next few years. But we do something different. Some feedback we got from people is, "If [Nreal Light] were available now, we would buy it." Just to watch a movie or a light MR experience.
Next Reality: Speaking of film in AR: Is Nreal Light a multi-user? Can multiple users wear the glasses to watch the same movie together at the same time?
Xu: Es will definitely be multiuser.
Next Reality: How many at the same time?
Xu: We are not sure yet, but we can definitely support that 5G this is definitely more possible.
Next Reality: What does the viewing experience look like in relation to the field?
Xu: The field of view is 52 degrees diagonal and has one Aspect Ratio of 16: 9.
Next Reality: Since it's a mobile-centric device, I have to ask: is that Nreal Light? waterproof or at least waterproof? And is it Wi-Fi enabled?
Xu: Not quite. However, at launch we have some specifications in mind. It is dustproof, reliable and suitable for regular use. And it is Wi-Fi enabled.
Next Reality: I also wanted to know if there's an Epic Games complaint update that we recently reported. They seem worried that the name Nreal will be confused with the name Unreal Engine, especially as both brands operate in the world of AR. How serious is this complaint from your point of view?
Xu: I can not say much about that because it's not finished yet. But we have people working on it.
Next Reality: Let's talk about software. What happens at the developer front for Nreal Light?
Xu: We really want to talk about our SDK because we've already shown a lot of third-party content. From Arvizio to NextVR, it took us less than ten days to bring their content to our platform. It is very simple and very user friendly. This is also very important because we are trying to build a truly open ecosystem where users can easily port their existing content to our platform, such as: From ARKit and ARCore or from HoloLens or Magic Leap.
Next Reality: Give me the best scenario for Nreal Light for a consumer who has nothing know about AR. What would be the simplest and most likely things for which you imagine the device?
Xu: For consumers, I think they are two different things. One is entertainment, such as movies, some light games, social apps, shopping and related activities. The other thing would be productivity. We talked to Adobe and Autodesk. Imagine, people put on their glasses and they have a really complicated 3D model in front of them where people could work together and say you could add that to a laptop and you have several screens in front of you. In addition to the actual screen [laptop] this would also be very useful.
Next Reality: Some of the Nreal Light movie examples and haunting demos are impressive and show some familiar characters. Do you have official entertainment content partners?
We build more accessible mixed-reality glasses that are more suitable for mass use. When I look at HoloLens or Magic Leap or some other AR or VR glasses, they are not glasses, but rather helmets. They are just too big.
Xu: We're looking for that. We definitely have some in China, because that's where we come from. For example: iQiyi is one of our investors, they are the largest video streaming companies in China, they are like the Netflix of China. So you have a lot of content. They also worked with us on volumetric content.
Next Reality: Do you have plans for Enterprise AR customers?
Xu: That's where the pod [hip-computer] comes in. For companies, you want the entire system. And not just the entire system, but also a software solution. That's why we've worked with a few other system service providers.
Next Reality: Give me your opinion on the state of AR. What do you think about what is happening in the universe in general?
Xu: After the CES, we actually looked at the entire ecosystem. We talked to many interesting players in space, and we realized that the software ecosystem is there, but the biggest bottleneck is the hardware. This causes people to hesitate and say, "Will we immediately put resources into this room or wait a few more years?"
I think [our product] gives them hope when they think, "Ok, that could happen next year." Combine [Nreal Light] with 5G and 5G smartphones, and we can unlock many other interesting use cases since 5G Gives you better throughput and lower latency. So we have the ability to port a lot of computational overhead to the cloud and to a server. This makes [Nreal Light] more efficient and lasts longer.