Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.
Image: Nreal

With its new AR glasses, China’s Nreal wants to leapfrog the West

Image of Nreal Air AR glasses

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: Nreal is announcing a new pair of AR glasses, and Next Up is turning 1.

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The Big Story

Nreal releases new consumer AR glasses

Chinese AR startup Nreal is back with a new model of glasses: Nreal Air looks even more like a regular pair of sunglasses, while also improving on its predecessor's optics. Both will be key to getting consumers to buy into AR, Nreal CEO Chi Xu told me this week. "We want people to wear this in public," he said.

The new device is designed to be tethered to a phone for processing and power, just like the company's existing Nreal Light glasses. This allows Nreal to integrate as few components as possible directly into the headgear, bringing the weight of the device down to 77 grams.

  • Nreal's first smart glasses only worked with a few high-end Android phones, but this new model can also be tethered to iPhones and iPads.
  • The company also worked to improve its optical engine to achieve a higher pixel density while lowering its power consumption.
  • Nreal is leaving the pricing of Air up to local carrier partners, but Xu told me that it will be significantly cheaper than the Light, which sells for close to $600 in South Korea. "We want to make sure this is going to be more affordable," he said.

Nreal's take on AR is very different from the way Apple and Facebook are approaching the market. While the tech giants are slowly chipping away on hard problems in their labs, and may not release consumer AR glasses for a few more years, Nreal is effectively iterating in the market.

  • This has resulted in products that are arguably imperfect: Ultimately, consumers won't want to plug their glasses into their phones to access AR, and Nreal's optical system is still dependent on dark shades that block most outside light.
  • Still, it's the best you can do for now, Xu argued. The new Air model will be the first chance for many consumers to experience the true potential of AR, he said.
  • It's also a way for Nreal, and the rest of the industry, to learn about real-world usage of AR devices. One surprise lesson from Nreal's Light glasses was that people like to consume a lot of media with them, with YouTube and a Korean streaming service being the two most popular apps so far.
  • Another interesting tidbit: People who buy these devices do actually use them quite a bit. "The average usage time in South Korea is about 49 minutes per day," Xu said.

Nreal recently raised $100 million, and now wants to use that money to grow its team and expand into new markets. The company isn't selling its devices in China and the United States yet, and Xu told me that he wants to get all his ducks in a row first. "These are massive countries, and we want to take them very seriously," he said.

Nreal also wants to take some lessons from the mobile phone business, as AR goes global. China's consumer electronics industry initially left that market to companies like Samsung and Apple, and only jumped on board after those two already found success. AR may be an opportunity for China to leapfrog the West. "We want to start early," Xu said. "We want to build the whole supply chain, make sure [it's] ready for rapid market growth."

The massive growth potential of AR is one thing Xu can agree on with Facebook and Apple. "By the year of 2030, we will have a billion people wearing [AR] glasses on a daily basis," he predicted.

Overheard

"It's a nice marketing platform, but there are more effective ones." — Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos, throwing shade at Apple TV+ (hat tip to Nilay Patel).

"I would far prefer this adventure to go on for 10 or 20 more years. But that's not the way corporate America works." — WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar on the prospects of losing his job soon.

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Michael Pryor, co-founder of Trello (now a part of Atlassian), explains what he's learned along the way and his advice for other companies that are looking to build a truly collaborative culture that keeps employees feeling connected — from wherever they choose to work.

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Watch Out

Happy birthday to us!

Time flies if you're having fun, and I've been having such a blast putting together Protocol's Next Up newsletter every week that I almost missed two major milestones: Next Up is turning 1 this month, and we sent out the 50th edition of Next Up two weeks ago.

I say "we" because it has really been a group effort: Next Up couldn't have gotten off the ground, or made its way into inboxes every week, without the help of my editors. And it certainly wouldn't be the same without its dedicated readers, who are regularly chiming in on Twitter and via email, attending our events and helping to grow our audience.

Are you new to the Next Up family? No worries, you can always browse past issues on our website just below the latest issue, or simply check out these five stories to get a sense of what Next Up has been up to over the past 12 months:

  • Why weird tech matters. This has been a bit of an unofficial tag line for Next Up. I like to delve into things like ultrasound, multimodal interaction, AR and more and figure out: What does all of this geeky stuff mean for the future of technology and entertainment?
  • Mixed reality is coming to local weather forecasts. Innovation frequently happens where one least expects it, and The Weather Channel has become one of those companies surprising everyone.
  • When brands change hands. One of the confusing things about consumer electronics is that the brands on the box really don't tell you much about who actually made a device. Here's a look at ways legacy brands have found new life in tech.
  • The history of mobile VR. Phones were supposed to help take VR mainstream. Here's why that didn't happen, as told by an insider.
  • How Apple's AR contact lenses could work. Apple hasn't even announced its AR glasses yet, but reports indicate the company is already working on miniaturizing the tech to fit into contact lenses. Here's how the company may pull it off.

Fast Forward

  • On Protocol: The Void is plotting a comeback. The location-based VR startup is being revived under new ownership.
  • Syng has raised nearly $50 million. Turns out there is money in reinventing home audio.
  • Apple TV had fewer than 20 million subscribers in July, the company reportedly told a Hollywood union.
  • Clubhouse's creator program is off to a slow start. Some creators told The Verge that promised sponsorship deals never materialized.
  • On Protocol: Why gadget makers haven't increased their prices yet. Component costs are rising, but some companies have found other ways to steer consumers to more expensive gizmos.
  • Netflix shares some new data on its viewers. Turns out the most popular shows on the service are all Netflix exclusives.
  • Why Roku could face headwinds. Roku's ad business is booming, but a consolidation among streaming services could lead to slower revenue growth, according to MoffetNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson.
  • On Protocol: Netflix bought a game studio. The company also began testing mobile games in additional markets.

Auf Wiedersehen

Developers, they're just like us! Well, except for the part where they can actually write code, and build apps that let us stream movies to our TVs, music to our phones and VR worlds straight to our faces. But in the end, even the most seasoned programmers still just cross their fingers, knock on wood and hope whatever update they're about to push out won't break everything. Case in point: There are more than 440,000 GitHub commits with the phrase "hope this works," as Nesslabs founder Anne-Laure Le Cunff recently pointed out on Twitter. Also popular: "Fingers crossed" and "omg please." But all's well that ends well: After doing some research myself, I can report that all of those search terms are dwarfed by the more than 22 million commits containing the word "done."

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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