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Xreal Air 2 Ultra hands-on at CES 2024: Next-gen AR glasses in need of killer apps

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Even though Apple didn't have an official presence at CES 2024 in Las Vegas, the trade show still had a whole area dominated by mixed reality tech. One of the most popular booths there was none other than Xreal (formerly Nreal), which decided to ride on the Apple Vision Pro hype train and unveil its latest AR glasses, the Xreal Air 2 Ultra, in Las Vegas. The Chinese firm claims that its latest headset makes "an affordable alternative to" the likes of the $3,499 Vision Pro, though it's currently priced at $699 — a tad more than the $499 Meta Quest 3 — as Xreal attempts to lure developers into its ecosystem.

Unlike the rest of the Xreal Air 2 series, the Air 2 Ultra finally brings back 6DoF (six-degree-of-freedom) tracking — a first since the Nreal Light. In other words, you can physically walk around a virtual space, rather than being stuck in one spot. The 6DoF tracking is mainly handled by the two front-facing 3D environment sensors which, according to Xreal founder and CEO Chi Xu, are an advancement over prior models, and are less physically obtrusive compared to the ones on the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses. As with the Light, the Air 2 Ultra also supports hand tracking for interacting with virtual objects directly.

There's also a slight upgrade in the display department, featuring a wider 52-degree field of view — up from 46 degrees on the Air 2 and Air 2 Pro. It should otherwise be the same Sony micro OLED panels with a crisp 1080p resolution for each eye, along with a refresh rate of up to 120Hz and a brightness of up to 500 nits. Likewise, the Air 2 Ultra inherited the electrochromic dimming feature from the Pro, which offers two shade levels to minimize distraction from the outside world.

Given the extra hardware for 6DoF and hand tracking, it's no surprise that the Air 2 Ultra weighs slightly more than the Air 2 Pro — 80 grams versus 75 grams, but it still looks like a pair of regular sunglasses, and I definitely wouldn't mind wearing them in public. Xreal did its best to minimize the weight gain using a titanium frame, and obviously, these glasses still require an external power source — a smartphone or a PC — via USB-C. I had a total hands-on time of around 20 minutes, and at no point did I feel any discomfort, though there's no telling if that would be the case if I kept on going for the rest of the day.

A screenshot of the Xreal Air 2 Ultra's mixed reality from a third-person perspective.
Photo by Joel Chokkattu / Engadget

Given the lack of third-party apps at the moment (I do miss the Angry Birds demo on the Nreal Light), Xreal could only offer a concept demo to show off the Air 2 Ultra's 6DoF experience. This mainly involved a massive virtual desktop showing multimedia players, or a social media window showing the latest messages from my made-up friends, or a personal 3D cinema with a library of three movies. To the left, there was a vertical slider for changing colors on a smart light bar in the real world. I was also given three AR hexagonal discs: one for toggling between work profile and casual profile, one for switching between the casual modes (contacts, social and movie) and one for displaying a virtual pet.

The overall room tracking worked smoothly, even as I walked up to the large 3D avatars on my right, but things got a little trickier when it came to hand interaction. The hand tracking alone seemed fine (at least according to the skeletons rendered over my hands), but I struggled to pinch the light bar's color slider — it ended up at the wrong hue on several occasions. The interaction with the AR cardboard discs was also laggy at times, though I did enjoy being able to bring my virtual pet on one of the discs up close — I couldn't pick a favorite between the dung beetle and the fiddler crab.

Xreal Air 2 Ultra
Photo by Joel Chokkattu / Engadget

In response to the technical issues I ran into, Xreal's Xu pointed out that his team had been experiencing the same since the show floor opened. Our demo unit also crashed once, but it was fine after a reboot on the smartphone — an Oppo Find X5, which got worryingly warm right before it gave up. This goes to show that the Air 2 Ultra performance is only as good as the computational device it's attached to.

Speaking of which, Xreal says these glasses are also compatible with the Samsung Galaxy S22 and S23, along with Apple's iPhone 15 and any Windows or Mac machine that can run the company's Nebula environment. Xreal is also developing a dedicated companion device to go with the Air 2 Ultra, though there's no word on specs nor time frame.

Xreal Air 2 Ultra
Photo by Richard Lai / Engadget

Considering the show floor hiccups, it's only fair to revisit the Xreal Air 2 Ultra in a less chaotic environment later — especially when more developers are on board after it starts shipping in March. Still, we wouldn't go as far as agreeing with Xreal's implication that its AR glasses can totally replace Apple's Vision Pro, as only the latter — and any VR headset, for that matter — is able to offer a completely immersive experience. It'll ultimately boil down to the range of apps on each platform, but if you're looking for something that you wouldn't mind wearing for prolonged periods, then the Air 2 Ultra would most likely be the better choice.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/xreal-air-2-ultra-hands-on-next-gen-ar-glasses-in-need-of-killer-apps-203943588.html?src=rss

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