If you've ever spent any serious time exploring the Chinese tech startup world, you know it's moving fast – very fast. The technology launches from Beijing and Shenzhen are moving so fast that they are now in serious competition with Silicon Valley.
The latest competitor who challenges North California's technical dominance, Beijing-based Nreal, is focused on reality and has, in a couple of years, made great leaps toward taking AR mainstream. Necel's founder and CEO, Xu Chi, a former engineer at Magic Leap, believes he has the product that will normalize AR's migration from the smartphone to a pair of laptops before Apple gets its rumored AR product from its launch.
Recently, having tested the Nreal Light product, I had the chance to talk to Xu about the product's strengths and weaknesses, how the company's road map looks and how he sees the state of the AR industry in the wake of constant change and cutting
Even if Nreal Light is not available yet first met you a year ago, the device was Nreal, which turned out very different and showed mainly a monitor rather than a completely deepened enhanced reality that Nreal Light does. Can you explain how you managed to get to the new product so quickly?
Xu Chi: We actually showed three different patterns. There were still very early prototypes, so the other features were not there yet, and it was actually our first appearance. For CES this year we had Nreal Light, which will be officially available, and that product is actually much more mature. We have just become iterating and testing, and we have actually ended up in seven iterations from the generation of a product in recent years. We worked with optics, SLAM camera, algorithm and other things;
Next reality: The version we saw on CES had a hip-mounted computer, but the version you show us uses now a smartphone instead. Can you explain why you decided to go in that direction?
Xu: We tried to make this product really, really available. If you look at the pod [hip-mounted computer] we showed up at CES, it was basically a cell phone without a screen. It used the Qualcomm 845 chip with a battery. So it made us think, "Can we utilize the current mobile phones and connect it directly to our device?" We talked to Qualcomm, and we ended up doing this in recent months. So we've been working with Qualcomm guys in San Diego for the last few months to make it work, and we saved it for the big show at Mobile World Congress.
Next reality: So now that you put the AR glasses on Android smartphones with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chip, will you do away with the software version of the product?
Xu: We should give people the option to choose.
We tried to make this product really, really available … So it made us think: "Can we take advantage of the current mobile phones and connect it directly to our device?"
Next Reality: does it mean that the Nreal Light product becomes cheaper if consumers choose to buy just buy the glasses to pair with the smartphone and skip the hip-mount computer?
Xu: Of course. And so it will make the product more affordable and accessible because everyone has a smartphone
Next reality: I haven't seen any hand interaction or control in any of the demons, including the one I just had. Will it come?
Xu: We do not have hand tracking for now, but we definitely plan to add it in the future. Right now, we use a small controller that has 3DoF (degrees of freedom), as well as a trackpad.
Xu: Well, I think we do something a little different. I would not compare. We build more available mixed executive glasses that are more ready for mass uptake. If I look at HoloLens or Magic Leap, or any other AR or VR glasses, they are not glasses; they are more like helmets. They are just too big.
I think they have good technology, but if you on these products you do not really see that it will end in the next few years. But we do something a little different. Any feedback we received from people is "If [Nreal Light] was available right now we would buy it." Just to watch a movie or maybe a little light MR experience. "
Next reality: Talk about watching movies in AR is the Nreal Light multi-user? Can multiple users have the glasses to watch the same movie
Xu: There will definitely be several users.
Next reality: How many at the same time
Xu: We are not sure yet, but we can definitely support it. With the possibility of 5G it is definitely more possible.
Next reality: What is the viewing experience with regard to fields
Xu: The field of view is 52 degrees diagonally and has a 16: 9 aspect ratio.
Next Reality: Since this is a mobile-centered device I have to ask: Is Nreal Light waterproof or in all fall l Water resistant? And is it Wi-Fi enabled?
Xu: Not really yet. But we have some specifications in mind when we start … it will be dustproof, it will be reliable, and it will be good for regular use. And it's Wi-Fi enabled.
Next reality: I also wanted to know if there is an update on the epic toy search that we reported recently. They seem to have a concern over the name Nreal, which is confused with the unrealistic engine name, especially since both brands are active in the AR world. How serious is that trial from your point of view?
Xu: I can't say too much about it, because it's not closed yet. But we have people working on it.
Next reality: Let's talk about software. What happens at Nreal Light's developer front?
Xu: We really want to talk about our SDK because we have already shown a lot of third-party content. From Arvizio to NextVR, it took us less than ten days to get the content on our platform. It is also very simple and very user-friendly. It is also very important for us to try to build a really open ecosystem where people can easily retrieve their existing content on our platform, for example from ARKit and ARCore, and HoloLens or Magic Leap.
Next reality: Give me the best use scenario for Nreal Light for a consumer who doesn't know anything about AR. What would be the easiest and most likely things you imagine them using the device?
Xu: For consumers, I think there are two different things. One is entertainment, such as movies, some easy games, social apps, shopping and activities like that. The other would be productivity. We've talked to Adobe and Autodesk. So imagine people putting on their glasses and they have a really complicated 3D model in front of them where people can work together and say you can add it to a laptop and you have multiple screens in front of you. Besides the screen itself [laptop] it would also be very useful.
Next reality: Some of the Nreal Light movie samples and in-depth demos are impressive and they have some familiar characters. Do you have any official entertainment content partners?
We are building more available mixed reality goggles that are more ready for mass uptake. If I look at HoloLens or Magic Leap, or any other AR or VR glasses, they are not glasses, they are more like helmets. They are just too big.
Xu: We're looking for it. 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 company in China, they are like Netflix in China. So they have a lot of content.
Next reality: Do you have any plans for business AR customers?
Xu: That's where the graft [hip-computer] comes in. For companies you want the whole system. And not just the whole system, but also software. So we have worked with some other system vendors on it.
Next Reality: Give me your opinion on AR's condition. What do you think about what happens in space in general right now?
Xu: After CES, we actually took a look at the whole ecosystem. We talked to many interesting players in space, and we realized that the software ecosystem is there, but the biggest bottleneck is actually the hardware. This type makes people hesitate and say, "Should we put resources into this space right away, or maybe wait a couple of years?"
I think [our product] gives them some hope and thinking: "Ok, this may happen next year." And combine [Nreal Light] with 5G and 5G smartphones and we can unlock many other interesting user cases because 5G gives you better throughput and lower latency. So we have a chance to port a lot of calculation to the cloud and to a server as well. Here's how it will make [Nreal Light] more efficient and last longer.