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Nreal Air review: new augmented reality specs put a big screen in your view | Wearable technology

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The first widely available augmented reality glasses have hit the UK high street, putting TV shows, movies and games on a big virtual screen just in front of your eyes. But while the Nreal Air are the first of their type on the shelves, they are limited in what consumers can do with them.

Many firms have tried to be the first to make AR glasses the next generation of technology, not least Google with its ill-fated Glass back in 2013. Snapchat and Facebook have made attempts, both sporting cameras for recording others, but so far there have been no glasses for consumers with displays for the wearer to view. Until now.

Still aimed squarely at early adopters, the £400 Nreal Air sold by EE take a simplified approach. They forgo cameras that could be seen by as an invasion of other people’s privacy, focusing instead on giving the wearer virtual semi-transparent screens for video, apps and games in a light and compact frame.

The glasses need to be constantly connected via cable to a compatible high-end Android smartphone to function. They won’t work with an iPhone but will with other Apple devices such as some iPads, and Mac and Windows computers.

A man wearing the Nreal Air glasses.
The Air are the most standard in appearance smart glasses to date but are still clearly not regular sunglasses, protruding much further from your face. Others will also be able to see what you are watching in front of your eyes . Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The glasses lack a battery or processing power of their own, making them comfortable and light at only 79g, but the USB-C cable hanging from the left arm puts pressure on your ear. They can take prescription lenses, although you will have to get them through your own optician, have adjustable arms and several size of nose bridge for a customisable fit.

OLED displays hidden in the top of the chunky frame project images on to the transparent lenses in front of your eyes. The virtual display they create is surprisingly crisp and bright. However, the idea of AR recognised by many – where objects in your vision are highlighted such as cultural landmarks – is not possible as the glasses lack the necessary cameras or sensors to “see” the real world.

The Nebula control app shown on a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone connected to the Nreal Air glasses.
The Nebula app on an Android smartphone is required for the most advanced functions, here used on a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Instead, the specs have two modes. First, “Air Casting” essentially uses the glasses as an external screen for your phone. Second, “MR Space” behaves more like a set of virtual reality goggles, such as Meta’s Quest 2, with screens you can interact with floating in front of you in a virtual space.

MR Space

Snapshots showing what is displayed on the glasses, including the home screen (top left), various browser windows (top right), repositioning of a browser window (bottom left) and the cycling experience (bottom right).
Snapshots showing what is displayed on the glasses in MR Space, including the home screen (top left), various browser windows (top right), repositioning of a browser window (bottom left) and the cycling experience (bottom right). Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Using the Nebula app on your phone as a pointing stick and clicker to interact with elements, the MR Space creates a virtual space with a floating home screen from which you launch and lay out browser windows.

The system has three degrees of freedom (3DoF), meaning you can turn your head side to side, move it up and down or rotate to different angles to see more of the virtual space, such as the Guardian site open full-size in the middle but Twitter far off to your left. It is novel but limited. The built-in browser can only get you so far.

A view through the lens of the Nreal Air glasses showing the Guardian website.
The image through the glasses is surprisingly crisp and clear, particularly in dimmer conditions or with the optional blackout shade clipped to the front of the glasses. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

There is an interesting virtual cycling experience available. But it feels more like a demo, simply playing a fixed-pace video of a route though a city or landscape on a floating screen in front of you as you cycle on an exercise bike. The field of view is narrow, meaning you turn your head and see an empty void, while there is no connection between what you are doing with your legs and the video.

I can fully see an app such as the Zwift cycling and running training simulator on the glasses with a 360-degree virtual experience, but we’re not there yet.

There are a handful of apps and games that work with the glasses available in the Play Store but most of which are only compatible with Nreal’s more advanced and expensive Light glasses that aren’t available in the UK. For the mixed-reality mode to be interesting beyond a quick play, it needs many more apps and features.

Air Casting

A Marvel Studios logo shown on a smartphone connected to the Nreal Air glasses.
Air Casting just mirrors what is on your phone screen on the glasses so you can use apps, watch movies or play games. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

More immediately compelling is using the glasses as a surrogate TV mirroring your phone screen. Fire up Netflix or similar for a movie, TV show or game and you’ve got your own little private cinema. The glasses create a screen about the size of a 24in monitor an arm’s length away from you on a desk, which is certainly better than trying to watch something on the small display of your phone.

The majority of media streaming apps and games work but those that restrict payback when you have a TV attached do not, such as Sky Go. The glasses have small built-in speakers, which work fine but broadcast the audio to those around you. Better to connect your own Bluetooth earbuds to your phone to provide the soundtrack.

It is fun experimenting with different apps on your phone, too, such as seeing a live feed from your phone’s camera on the glasses or playing console-quality games through the Xbox Game Pass app with a Bluetooth joypad.

A photo of a fox viewed through the lens of the Nreal Air.
You can view photos, websites and videos or play games through the glasses using your connected device. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

In addition, the “side cast” option moves the content to the left of your vision so you can watch something without obstructing your view of the real world ahead of you, though fewer apps support this mode.

One wrinkle to both modes is that what appears on the glasses also appears on your phone screen. Turn the phone screen off and it stops showing on the glasses.

Other things you can connect them to

The Nreal Air glasses connected to an iPad mini.
Most other devices see the Nreal glasses as a TV or monitor connected via USB-C. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Outside of what Nreal intends you to do using its Nebula control app, the glasses can simply act as a USB-C external monitor. Plugged into a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone I could use its DeX Android desktop-like interface, which was surprisingly good.

Connected to an iPad mini or other Apple tablet with a USB-C port, the glasses showed up as TV, enabling me to watch videos on them with playback controls on the iPad’s screen.

The glasses can be used as a monitor on a Mac or PC, too. Nreal recently announced it was working on system to play games from the PC Steam store on the glasses with beta software due at the end of June, so it is clear the intended use with an Android smartphone is only the beginning.

Sustainability

The Nreal Air glasses sitting in an open pill-shaped storage case.
The glasses come with a pill-shaped hard case for travel and storage, as well as a plastic blackout shade that clips to the front of the Air to block out ambient light. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The glasses are generally repairable by Nreal. The company has committed to keeping the device updated for the foreseeable future, with plans to introduce new experiences and expanding compatibility.

EE offers trade-in and recycling schemes but the glasses are not made of recycled material, nor does Nreal publish environmental impact assessments.

Price

The Nreal Air cost £399.99 upfront or £395 spread over 11 months exclusively with EE in the UK. You don’t have to have a phone contract with the company to buy one, nor do the glasses have any tariff attached.

Verdict

The Nreal Air are the first set of mixed-reality glasses available in the UK that don’t break the bank and actually work, although they are limited in function and compatibility.

They are clearly made for Android-using early adopters, offering a demo of what is possible through the Nebula app and its MR Space. But they are missing compelling mixed-reality experiences. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Without glasses in people’s hands there is no incentive for developers to make apps, which is something Nreal hopes will change through its own work, developer programmes and sales of the glasses.

For now, the most obvious use is as a virtual TV screen. They are more comfortable than VR headsets and less than half the cost of previous AR glasses. I can see commuters or those without big TVs turning to them as a better way to watch the latest blockbuster or play games.

It’s fun to experiment with different apps on your phone to see what they are like on the glasses, such as Xbox cloud gaming. Using them with computers, tablets and other devices offers even more interesting possibilities. Whether that’s enough of a draw remains to be seen.

Pros: light, comfortable, adjustable fit, good screen, optional clip-on light shade, compact design, built-in speakers, cheaper than rivals, MR and virtual VR modes, can be used unofficially with most USB-C devices.

Cons: no cameras or sensors for true AR, few compelling mixed-reality apps, limited smartphone compatibility, no iPhone support, expensive for the limited experience, have to be used tethered by a cable.

An image of the angled prisms on the back of the sunglass lenses that create the semi-transparent display of the Nreal Air.
The angled prisms on the back of the sunglass lenses create the semi-transparent display but make the front of the glasses thick. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

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The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to layoffs.fyi, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

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Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®



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4 supports that can help employees outside of work

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Everyone has different situations to deal with outside of the workplace. But that doesn’t mean the workplace can’t be a source of support.

Employers and governments alike are often striving to make workplaces better for everyone, whether it’s workplace wellbeing programmes or gender pay gap reporting.

However, life is about more than just the hours that are spent in work, and how an employer supports those other life challenges can be a major help.

Family-friendly benefits

Several companies have been launching new benefits and policies that help families and those trying to have children.

Job site Indeed announced a new ‘family forming’ benefit package earlier this year, which is designed to provide employees with family planning and fertility-related assistance.

The programme includes access to virtual care and a network of providers who can guide employees through their family-forming journey.

Vodafone Ireland introduced a new fertility and pregnancy policy in February 2022 that includes extended leave for pregnancy loss, fertility treatment and surrogacy.

And as of the beginning of 2022, Pinterest employees around the world started receiving a host of new parental benefits, including a minimum of 20 weeks’ parental leave, monetary assistance of up to $10,000 or local equivalent for adoptive parents, and four weeks of paid leave to employees who experience a loss through miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.

Helping those experiencing domestic abuse

There are also ways to support employees going through a difficult time. Bank of Ireland introduced a domestic abuse leave policy earlier this year, which provides a range of supports to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic abuse.

Under the policy, the bank will provide both financial and non-financial support to colleagues, such as paid leave and flexibility with the work environment or schedule.

In emergency situations where an employee needs to immediately leave an abusive partner, the bank will help through paid emergency hotel accommodation or a salary advance.

In partnership with Women’s Aid, the company is also rolling out training to colleagues to help recognise the symptoms of abuse and provide guidance on how to take appropriate action.

Commenting on the policy, Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson said employers who implement policies and procedures for employees subjected to domestic abuse can help reduce the risk of survivors giving up work and increase “feelings of solidarity and support at a time when they may feel completely isolated and alone”.

A menopause policy

In 2021, Vodafone created a policy to support workers after a survey it commissioned revealed that nearly two-thirds of women who experienced menopause symptoms said it impacted them at work. A third of those who had symptoms also said they hid this at work. Half of those surveyed felt there is a stigma around talking about menopause, which is something Vodafone is seeking to combat through education for all staff.

Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com last year, Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary said the company would roll out a training and awareness programme to all employees globally, including a toolkit to improve their understanding of menopause and provide guidance on how to support employees, colleagues and family members.

In Ireland, Vodafone employees are able to avail of leave for sickness and medical treatment, flexible working hours and additional care through the company’s employee assistance programme when going through the menopause.

Support hub for migrants

There are also initiatives to help people get their foot on the employment ladder.

Earlier this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD launched a new service with education and employment supports for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The Pathways to Progress platform is part of the Open Doors Initiative supporting marginalised groups to access further education, employment and entrepreneurship in Ireland.

As part of the initiative, member company Siro offered a paid 12-week internship programme for six people who are refugees. The internships include job preparation, interview skills and access to the company’s online learning portals.

Open Doors Initiative CEO Jeanne McDonagh said the chance to land a meaningful job or establish a new business is key to people’s integration into Ireland, no matter what route they took to get here.

“Some are refugees, some are living in direct provision, some will have their status newly regularised, and others will come directly for work,” she said. “Our new service aims to support all migrants in finding a decent job as they prepare to enter the Irish workforce, and to support employers as they seek to build an inclusive culture in their workplaces.”

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