July 15, 2024

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The Intersection of Information and Insight

This Isn’t AR, but It Is Cool

14 min read

Key Takeaways

  • The Xreal Air 2 glasses offer a high-quality portable HD display that can be worn all day and even come with prescription lens inserts if needed.
  • The wireless transmission and AR features of the Xreal Beam accessory are barely functional, making it a substandard media player with limited app options.
  • While the Xreal Air 2 glasses excel in visual quality, they do not provide a compelling use case for augmented reality and lack the ability to interact with the real world like true AR glasses.


The Xreal (formerly Nreal) Air 2 is a lightweight pair of glasses with a small HD mini-OLED monitor in the lens. With no computing power and only basic 3DOF motion sensors that need an optional accessory to take advantage of, it’s hard to call this Augmented Reality of any kind. But what they do offer—a portable display that can be worn all day—is excellent quality. Your only problem will be finding an actual use case for them.

XREAL Air 2

The Xreal Air 2 glasses offer a portable HD display that you can use all day, with prescription inserts if needed. While wired mode works flawlessly, the Beam accessory for wireless transmission and AR features is barely functional. The broader problem is that they still have no compelling use case. 

Brand
Xreal (formerly Nreal)

Speakers
Built-in open-ear

Weight
72g (2.54oz)

Refresh rate
120Hz

Resolution
1080p HD

Field of view
46°

Connectivity
USB-C (or wireless with the Xreal Beam accessory)

Sensors
3DOF motion sensor

Pros

  • Great quality HD screens with bright, vibrant colors
  • Visible in daylight, with brightness settings and blackout shade to suit other environments as needed
  • Prescription lens inserts
  • Great as a portable monitor for wired USB-C AltDP mode capable devices, like the Steam Deck
Cons

  • The Xreal Beam is a substandard media player with only a few apps
  • Wireless casting barely works
  • There’s no real “AR” experiences here
  • The Nebula app barely functional

Augmented Reality? Not Really

The Xreal Air 2 are being marketed as AR glasses, but I think it’s important to be clear in our definitions here. The Meta Quest 3 (or the upcoming Apple Vision Pro), with its ability to scan your surroundings, integrate furniture into gameplay, and maintain the position of objects you place within the augmented environment, is what most people would consider augmented or mixed reality. The virtual experiences interact with your real world. You can place a virtual puzzle on your kitchen table, walk away, and return to it still on your table.

Related

Meta Quest 3 Review: Introducing the Magic of Mixed Reality

While the promised features aren’t quite there yet, what we do have is a magical glimpse and a shift away from the isolation of typical VR experiences

The Xreal Air 2 are more like the equivalent of taking the backlight off your desktop monitor and then gluing it to your face. It won’t scan your surroundings, it won’t interact with your furniture. There are no cameras. It’s just a set of portable monitors strapped to your face. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s very good at being that. It has a high pixel density with an equivalent field of view to a desktop monitor, and offers good enough clarity to type, game on, or watch media. It’s just not “augmenting reality” in any meaningful way.

The Visual Quality is Superb

On a technical level, the Xreal Air 2 uses two 0.55-inch mini-OLED screens mounted in the top to project downwards onto the lenses. This results in a maximum field of view of 46 degrees. That sounds low compared to a VR headset (which is typically 90-120 degrees), but it’s comparable to sitting a few feet from a 27-inch desktop monitor, and that’s as good as it needs to be. This is not designed to offer a full surround immersive experience.

xreal air 2 review - nosepads and projection screen close up
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

Even in full passthrough mode, in average lighting, I found the colors were vibrant and accurate. Of course, since black can’t be projected, it will be seen as transparent depending on your surroundings. So the precise quality of anything dark will vary. A rocker switch on the right-hand frame arm lets you dim or brighten the display, so the opacity of white and colors can be adjusted from almost entirely opaque to barely visible. If you’re not moving around and don’t need that external vision, you can clip on the included blackout cover for the best picture quality. With this on, black levels are superb.

Unlike the Rokid Max, which I felt added a dark veneer over everything to make the screen visible at all, the darkening effect of the lenses on the Xreal Air 2 is barely noticeable. Xreal claims up to 500 nits of brightness is possible, which likely contributes to this.

xreal air 2 review - screen view through the lenses
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

I was able to happily walk around and do my daily tasks while wearing these, albeit with a distinct feeling that I was living in an episode of Black Mirror.

As a side note, the Xreal Air 2 does support 3D-SBS formats by holding down the + side of the brightness rocker. This will then make them accept a 3840 x 1080 image format so that you can send in two full HD displays (one for each eye). However, you’ll need to mess around with aspect ratio settings in order to force it to stretch the image to twice as wide as it would natively be, so that rules out basic media players and frame-packed formats. It’s not ideal, so I wouldn’t recommend the Xreal Air 2 specifically for fans of 3D content.

Design: You’ll Still Look Ridiculous

The Xreal Air 2 look like a large pair of sunglasses, and there’s very little to give away the fact that they actually contain some screens other than slightly thicker than normal frame and arms. I received a pair in sporty red, though black is also available.

Whether you can pull off wearing these in public without being viciously mocked is another matter. I’ve always been proud of my son’s honesty: “You look absolutely ridiculous,” he exclaimed. I guess red isn’t my color.

xreal air 2 review - wearing with custom lenses in living room
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

At a mere 72g (2.54oz), they’re lightweight and ergonomic and shouldn’t cause any comfort issues on your nose. A hard carry case is included to keep them secure during travel, as well as a braided USB-C cable with a 90-degree angle so the cable drops down.

Three shapes of nose pad brackets are included, so you should be able to find one that suits you. The nose pad material is soft, and I was able to wear them for extended periods without issue. But there’s quite a small sweet spot, and I found myself needing to fiddle a lot with the angles in order to get a full screen visible without the edges being blurry.

xreal air 2 review - box contents 2
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

Also supplied are the blackout shades, which enable you to block any incoming light, should you need deeper black levels. Of course, you’ll still have light entering from outside the frames, so this isn’t equivalent to a VR headset with a light-blocking facial interface.

Unlike some personal cinema displays like the Goovis G3 Max, the Xreal Air 2 doesn’t have a diopter adjustment. That’s because these are designed to be worn all the time, so you’ll still need to see the outside world. A personal cinema display will only let you adjust to see the screen directly in front of you. If you need to wear glasses, you’ll have to purchase some prescription lenses for around $100. I did this, and they fit in easily enough, though they’re a little smaller than my regular lenses, so more of my periphery ends up blurred.

xreal air 2 review - custom lenses fitted
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

While I was waiting for my prescription lenses to arrive, I used the Xreal Air 2 over the top of my regular (slimline) glasses just fine, but they didn’t quite sit right on my ears. Visually, though, the screen and displays were functional. So, if you’re only going to use these while sat down, you might even be able to hold off on the prescription lenses.

Apart from the screens and tiny speakers, there are no other complex electronics inside the Xreal Air 2, not even a battery. That means it needs to be connected using the USB-C cable in order to do anything. There is, however, a 3DOF motion sensor, so that when connected to a compatible source (typically, the Beam), it will be able to know the rotation of your head.

Xreal Beam Is a Wireless Adapter

The Xreal Beam is a wireless adapter and battery pack, and it adds some interesting AR functionality. But it’s important to understand exactly what it is—and isn’t.

The Xreal Beam is not a standalone media player by any definition. It does have Amazon Prime, Netflix, and a local file browser at the time of review, but not a lot else. There is no Google Play or even a third-party App Store (though some users have succeeded with sideloading). If you want a portable media player so you don’t need to cast from a smartphone, look elsewhere.

But the Beam does offer two important features. For a start, the Beam is a power source for the glasses. Without that, you’ll need an input source that also supplies power over the USB-C connection. But the Xreal Beam also allows you to cast wirelessly over AirPlay or Miracast, so you don’t need to be tethered. Just keep the Beam discreetly in your pocket, and it can receive a video signal wirelessly from your desktop (natively in both Windows or Mac) or smartphone.

xreal air 2 review - ipd vs xreal beam
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

The palm-sized Xreal Beam is reminiscent of the original iPod with its central click wheel design, which allows you to navigate the interface without a separate remote control. There’s also a motion sensor inside, such that you can wave it around to act as a pointer within the files app. It’s clear there’s a lot of potential here, and it’s perhaps just an issue of getting more software or opening up the system officially.

On one side of the device is a blue volume rocker (hold down to mute), while a power button sits on the top side, and a red mode switch button is on the left. The top of the device and the power button are set upon an inset metal bar surrounded by a mesh. This is an exhaust for the internal fan, which kicks in after half an hour or so of streaming.

xreal air 2 review - xreal beam design power
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

Confusingly, there are two USB-C ports on the bottom of the device. One charges the Beam, and the other connects to the Xreal Air 2 glasses. This means you can charge and use the Beam at the same time or use it as an intermediate device to add some AR features to your input source. But the ports aren’t interchangeable; the glasses must be plugged into the right-hand side, and the charger or input source goes on the left.

At 153g (5.4 oz), the Beam weighs no more than a small phone and will happily fit into your pocket. Most of this weight comes from the battery, which should last up to 3.5 hours—enough to watch even the most epic Lord of the Rings movies.

Xreal Beam “AR” Features Are Mostly a Gimmick

The Xreal Beam also crucially adds some AR features to the Xreal Air 2, including the ability to lock content to a location and adjust the display location.

Three display modes are supported when plugged into the Beam: Smooth Follow, with the screen centered and following head movement with a small delay; Body Anchor, where the image is locked to a specific place, and will disappear if you move your head; and Sideview, which shrinks the display and shifts it off to a less obtrusive corner of your vision. You must use one of these display modes. The native option of having the full-size screen just locked to your center of view is no longer available when connected through the Beam.

Body Anchor brings you the closest to an actual AR experience, but using a 3DOF (three degrees of freedom, or rotation only) motion sensor built into the glasses. That means you can’t place your display within a virtual environment but at a specific angle around your head. If you place it over your left shoulder, for instance, and then walk off somewhere, it’ll still be located over your left shoulder. 6DOF AR systems would place your display in a specific location; you would need to move back to that location in your physical space to see the display again.

I didn’t find any of the three AR modes to be particularly useful.

Locking the display in a 3DOF location doesn’t enable spatial computing in the same way the Quest 3 or Apple Vision Pro does; the illusion only works if you’re sat still at a desk, and why would you want to place it anywhere other than in front of you anyway? It’s not like you can have multiple displays and surround yourself with them.

I found Smooth Follow mode wouldn’t display my full desktop, so I had to scan around more to see the edges. I also found the smooth part of the mode to be frankly annoying, as I waited a few moments for the screen to catch up.

Sideview was too small to be useful; you’d need a heads-up-display interface specifically designed for this. If you like the idea of having a YouTube video the size of your thumb, then maybe you’ll like this mode.

Apple AirPlay Works, but YouTube Breaks Everything

The good news is that casting via native AirPlay to the Xreal Beam works brilliantly, and if you wanted to walk along while doomscrolling Reddit with your hand in your pocket, you absolutely can. I can confidently say I looked almost 52% less zombie-like while walking down the street in this way. No more getting run over by cars because you’re not looking where you’re going!

xreal air 2 review - wearing over glasses featured
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

Unfortunately, if your plans on an iPhone involve opening YouTube, you might want to think again. As soon as I opened the app, it defaulted to playing the first video on the homepage. Picking up my iPhone to choose another video booted the Xreal Beam back to its home screen. Despite the YouTube app claiming it was casting the chosen video to the device over AirPlay, it decidedly wasn’t. Closing the YouTube app and reconnecting AirPlay fixes it, but then it repeats the same issue the moment you open YouTube again. So think of it as a lottery, and perhaps you’ll enjoy the random video it shows you.

Another problem revealed itself at this point: it was far too quiet, even at full volume. I could barely hear it in my silent kitchen; I can’t imagine trying to listen to this on the streets or busy public transport.

Android Streaming Isn’t Much Better

I had hoped that with the Beam being an Android device, casting from an Android phone would be more successful. No such luck. I tried two devices: an older Ulefone 18T and a newer Tecno Phantom V foldable. The Xreal Beam didn’t appear in the castable devices list on the Ulefone until I found a helpful YouTube video, which mentioned having to delve into the settings, click on the three dots menu, and enable Wireless Desktop Display. Then it appeared in the list and all worked well, albeit with a noticeable amount of lag. The casting options for the Tecno Phantom V showed no such setting, and it refused to recognize the existence of the Beam at all.

Overall, my experience casting wirelessly from any smartphone was quite underwhelming. By which I mean it didn’t really work or offered a substandard experience. The broader issue is that using wireless casting for your general phone user interface feels like a non-starter. There’s no cursor or way to navigate without looking back at your phone screen, so outside of streaming native video or mindlessly scrolling (you’ll still need your thumb on your screen), there isn’t much of a genuine use case here.

Wired Mirroring Is Where the Xreal Air 2 Shines

You have a few options for mirroring your device with a cable.

The first is to use a direct USB-C connection straight into the Xreal Air 2 glasses. This is only possible if your device supports Alt-DP mode and supplies power. I tried a SteamDeck, which worked fantastically for this. The Nintendo Switch doesn’t, and needs to be docked with an HDMI adapter.

The wired connection means zero latency, but you also lose any configuration for the screen offered by the Xreal Beam. The display will be locked in the center, and full size. You can adjust the brightness or turn off the display from the buttons on the glasses, but that’s the only adjustment you get.

The other wired option is to use the Xreal Beam as an intermediary. Using a USB-C to USB-C or HDMI to USB-C adapter into the Beam allows you to use all the configurable AR screen options offered there—locking your screen to the corner of your vision, for instance.

The Nebula App Offers More AR (Supposedly)

The Xreal Nebula App offers AR experiences over a wired connection using Xreal’s own SDK, with a selection of Android devices supported. Unfortunately, none of the ones I own are supported.

There’s also a beta version for macOS, so I tried that…and it didn’t work either. A Windows version is in the works but not available at the time of writing.

nreal ar apps

So, I’d love to tell you about all the AR apps that are made possible by using the Nebula app, but I’m afraid I don’t have the slightest clue. The abundance of one-star ratings on the app store page would suggest that even when it does work, the experience is sub-par, so I doubt I’m missing much.

Should You Buy the Xreal Air 2? Maybe

There are some compelling reasons to purchase the Xreal Air 2, yet it’s still a deeply flawed product in other ways.

My experience with casting wirelessly from a smartphone using the Beam was largely a disaster. It either worked, barely, on Android, or most worked fine on iPhone but crashed when opening YouTube. Either way, you’ll still need your phone in your hand to control it.

xreal air 2 review - glass on table front view
James Bruce / MakeUseOf

In theory, the Xreal Air 2 would be great for a portable cinema experience. But it’s let down by the fact that the Xreal Beam isn’t really a media player, so it still needs to be paired with a smartphone or other output device.

That said, in as far as the current crop of “pseudo-AR screen in front of your eyes” glasses go, the Xreal Air 2 glasses are a winner. The image is crystal clear in HD, bright enough to use in daylight, and with optional prescription lenses for those of us with less-than-perfect vision, so you can wear them all day. That’s assuming you have a compatible output device and a compelling reason to use these, which seems to be the biggest stumbling block.

The output is great—but what exactly do you want to put in?

xreal air 2 product thumb

XREAL Air 2

The Xreal Air 2 glasses offer a portable HD display that you can use all day, with prescription inserts if needed. While wired mode works flawlessly, the Beam accessory for wireless transmission and AR features is barely functional. The broader problem is that they still have no compelling use case. 

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