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Nreal's plan to beat everyone else to mainstream AR glasses

The Chinese startup is preparing to release $500 AR glasses this year.

Attendees wear Nreal light mixed reality (MR) glasses during CES 2020 in Las Vegas

Nreal 's forthcoming $500 Light AR glasses may well be the first major market test of consumer-grade AR hardware.

Photo: Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chinese startup Nreal thinks it can do what its prominent competitors haven't cracked: produce augmented reality glasses at a price low enough to attract a critical mass of consumers. Its secret weapon? The phone in your pocket.

The company is getting ready to release its $500 Nreal Light AR glasses later this year. With a price tag significantly below that of Microsoft's $3,500 HoloLens headset, as well as the $2300 Magic Leap One, Nreal Light may well be the first major market test of consumer-grade AR hardware.


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Nreal is leap-frogging Western competitors like Magic Leap and Microsoft with a radically simplified hardware architecture: The company's AR glasses come without the battery and chipsets needed for a standalone headset. Instead, consumers simply plug them into a compatible Android phone to power AR applications. It's a setup that we'll likely see being used by a number of other AR and VR devices to be released in the near future — including Apple's long-rumored AR glasses.

"To us, it's a game-changer," said Anand Agarawala, CEO of the AR teleconferencing startup Spatial, which recently announced a collaboration with Nreal. "We see it as the first AR product that you will see on the street," added Spatial co-founder Jinha Lee.

Mixed reality for everyone

Nreal stumbled across its "bring your own phone" approach by accident, Nreal's Lead Product Manager Wei Lyu told Protocol. The company had always envisioned making its glasses work with external devices, including phones, iPads and even laptops, but still focused on building a dedicated puck for power and processing needs.

But when it showed off both versions at CES 2019, the audience was clearly wowed by the idea of a headset that only requires a phone to work, leading to a shift in direction. "We iterate really fast," Lyu said.

Nreal is still selling a $1,200 dev kit with a dedicated compute unit and external controller to developers, and the company also just previewed plans for an all-in-one enterprise edition that will officially be introduced later this year. However, the clear focus is on the $500 consumer version. "We make mixed reality for everyone," Lyu said.

At launch, Nreal is looking to support high-end phones from brands like Samsung, LG, Sony and OnePlus, as well as Chinese companies like Black Shark, Oppo and Vivo. "We are very focused on trying to make our glasses compatible with most Android phones," Lyu said.

Much like Magic Leap, Nreal allows developers to build dedicated AR apps that superimpose scenes and objects onto the real world. With support for developer environments like Unity and Unreal Engine, this can include anything from games to enterprise solutions like Spatial's AR telepresence solution.

Nreal's AR glasses don't just use phones for power and compute, they also act as a secondary screen for regular Android apps, including games, video-streaming services and productivity applications. The idea is to give consumers a kind of virtual desktop to go, Lyu said.

That's not to say any of this is easy. Apps built for Nreal's glasses will need to be compelling and the technical execution good enough to keep users engaged once the initial wow factor wears off. In the past, adoption of AR and VR hardware has been held back by the lack of so-called killer apps. Cheaper hardware lowers the bar a little bit, but no matter the price, Nreal has to overcome a number of hurdles inherent to the emerging tech.


$31 million in funding and a lawsuit

Nreal was founded in early 2017 by former Magic Leap engineer Xi Chu — a fact that his erstwhile employer is not at all happy about. Magic Leap sued Nreal in June, alleging that Chu stole confidential information from the company to kickstart the development of his own AR glasses.

But the two companies couldn't be more different. Magic Leap has raised some $2.6 billion to date, employs around 2,000 people in 20 offices scattered around the globe, and has been working on its own hardware since 2011. The company said late last year that it was looking to raise hundreds of million dollars more, but has since reportedly engaged in talks to sell itself.

Nreal has only raised $31 million to date and employs around 130 people. Magic Leap argued that both of those data points were proof that the Chinese startup couldn't have built its headset on its own.

Nreal filed a motion to dismiss the case in December, arguing that Magic Leap was simply looking to get rid of a competitor. In her conversation with Protocol, Lyu suggested that Nreal ultimately had a different approach toward AR than Magic Leap, which had spent significant capital on trying to solve hard visual computing challenges, like developing its own waveguide technology.

Nreal uses a much simpler projection technology, which is a lot cheaper to manufacture but still delivers results that have impressed many people. The company also limited the number of cameras and sensors on its device, according to Lyu, further bringing down costs. At the same time, Nreal has been able to add key features expected from modern-day AR and VR headsets, including hand tracking and surface detection. "We are more focused on something that can happen now," she said.

Apple's AR glasses may look similar

There are signs that Nreal is onto something with its take on AR. Apple has reportedly been exploring a similar architecture for its upcoming AR glasses, which could tether to an iPhone for power and compute.

Qualcomm expects multiple AR and VR headsets using the same architecture to ship in the coming months, said the chip maker's GM & VP of XR Hugo Swart during a media briefing for its latest XR reference design last month. Just like Nreal's glasses, these devices could be significantly less expensive than some of the headsets available to date, Swart predicted. "If you remove all the electronics, the build can be very affordable."

Lyu also predicted a bunch of new devices that plug into phones like Nreal's glasses, but didn't seem too worried about the prospect of increased competition. "It's good news for us," she said. "It means Nreal has done something right."

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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