Oppo Air Glass is an AR experience with one great idea

“Natural-looking glasses” are the holy grail of augmented reality. Big tech companies like Google and Intel have joined forces with startups like North and social media giants like Snap in trying to design something that people can wear above their eyes without feeling completely weird, and most importantly, without making the people around them uncomfortable. No one has cracked this code after nearly a decade of concerted efforts – but Chinese phone maker Oppo is at least having some fun with the challenge.

Earlier this year, Oppo launched the Air Glass, a vertical glass-based display for the company’s smartphones. Oppo has no plans to release the Air Glass outside of China, and only sells “in limited quantities” there, as Oppo is already planning to replace it with a next-generation version. It’s fairly expensive at 4,999 yuan (about $745), and like nearly all consumer ARs, it’s still more of a demo than a product.

But while many augmented reality experiences focus on pushing purely technical capability, Air Glass accepts some obvious hardware limits to play with an interesting form factor. After getting a set of glasses and a compatible phone to try out I found a design idea so straightforward that I’m surprised I didn’t see it much and it was executed with a coarseness that shows how much work remains.

Oppo’s waveguide displays whatever LED color you want, as long as it’s green.
Photo by Adi Robertson / The Verge

AR is a spectrum, and Air Glass is on the “simple notification machine” side of it, not the realistic holograms you’ll find in products like Microsoft HoloLens. The device is a single lens with a monochrome Micro LED projector and a waveguide that projects the light, as well as a plastic stem with a small speaker and trackpad that accepts swipes, taps and pressure.

But instead of being permanently installed in a pair of glass, Air Glass offers a two-piece design. The system described above has a shallow magnetic gap very similar to an Apple MagSafe port about halfway along the stem. To use it, you can place a pair of specially designed metal eyeglass frames that have a matching magnetic protrusion on the temples. The frames are regular glasses but they fit the lens system along the right side, and you have a single-eye AR display similar to Google Glass. When you’re done using the AR component, you use that magnetic slot to mount it against a curved charging case a bit like a shoe horn, which in turn charges via USB-C.

When you pair the Air Glass via Bluetooth with your Oppo phone (again, only in China), you get a green vertical display that covers a small but significant portion of your vision — for me, about the size of a palm I hold a foot of my right eye. The default overlay looks like something a cyborg assassin would use in the dystopian future of 1995, but in mostly a good way: It’s high-contrast, reasonably visible in everything but bright sunlight, and avoids feeling like a dull phone screen the way some full-color AR screens do. . I kept the watch screen lit continuously for about three hours without the battery draining, and the charging case is supposed to hold a charge of close to 10 hours, though I couldn’t fully charge and then drain it in one go.

I like the theory behind Oppo’s design because it’s a solid tactic to offer plenty of style options while also mitigating the AR’s perpetual creep factor. Nine years ago, Google Glass put an expensive camera and display system in front of the wearer’s eyes at all times, something that looked awkward at best and often at worst — remember those glassless bars in San Francisco? Wearing it made you not only a person who owns an electronic device but also Google glasses wearer, to use the more polite version of the term. Companies like North have been building finer glasses since then, but they’re still based on the idea of ​​having electronics on your face full time.

Picked up a bunch of Oppo AR glasses from their frames

The lens detaches from the frames like a MagSafe charger.

Side view of a pair of Oppo AR glasses

Metal bracket on the frames keeps the lens in place.

By contrast, the Air Glass is more like an earpiece for your eyes. Low-tech magnetic parts blend into the frames and seem to be easily added to a variety of styles. The magnetic load between the 30g lens device and the frame is quite solid, but the AR part is very easy to remove and stick in the case even if you wear eyeglasses all the time, showing you don’t have a discreet screen stuck to your face. It’s a solution that takes people’s concerns about privacy and distraction seriously rather than just trying to hide the thing they’re worried about inside a smaller package. It also helps that this generation of Air Glass does not have a camera, although Oppo says it is not ruling out the option for future versions.

Oppo’s AR interface focuses on simple widget-like applications in the form of “cards”, which you manage from the companion smartphone app. “Unlocking” the card will play it in the glasses, and you can swipe between the cards using the side trackpad or turn the glasses screen on and off by tapping on it. You can also long press on the glasses for voice commands or use gestures with the Oppo smartwatch, which I didn’t have.

Cards in their simplest form display information such as the time or weather. More complex cards unlock step-by-step walking directions with Baidu Maps, display virtually instant language translation, or upload text files to create an augmented reality remote console. Since the teleprompter effectively displays whatever text you want, you can use it more creatively as well – I cooked dinner one night by typing the recipe into a Word document and using the glasses as a hands-free monitor.

Side view of the Oppo Air Glass trackpad

The trackpad toggles between cards and switches display.

It’s a good set of features that are intuitively executed at a high level, but the average experience is still quite rough – and for anyone who doesn’t speak Chinese, only half of it can be used. Step-by-step navigation and voice commands weren’t implemented in English, so I jammed them in with the help of Google Translate and my almost-forgotten college language studies. (Within my very limited capabilities, they both look functional but high quality.)

The automatic translation is limited to English and Chinese, which isn’t as smooth as, say, those steam glasses we asked Google to imagine back in May. You can press a button to have someone speak to the paired phone in one language and see it translated into the second language text on the glasses, then have the wearer speak and you get the results similarly translated into text on the phone. There is also an option for two sets of glasses, but I wasn’t able to try it out.

Using the translation system by talking to myself in both languages, the phone side tended to time out or not realize I spoke after pressing the button. It took several seconds to type texts and then translate even SMS from either my native English or my very rusty Mandarin – not an issue unique to Oppo but a reminder that real-time translation still has its limits in the real world.

Also, the fact that Oppo’s non-AR frames are completely natural (albeit without glass to me, which made me look like an unbearable hipster wearing them in public) doesn’t make the overall package any less ridiculous. The lens over lens design in the glasses looks uniquely silly, especially since the frame and waveguide have completely different shapes despite Oppo designed them to work together. From specific angles, the glasses will clearly and brightly display whatever is on your screen to the outside world, adding to the retro sci-fi atmosphere. The design is barely heavier than wearing a large pair of sunglasses, but it tilts to one side—not enough to bother me as a wearer, but enough to be noticeable from the outside. It’s intuitive to imagine eyeglass designers building compatible magnetic hubs on different styles of frames, but it’s not clear if the lens will perform equally well on different shapes and sizes.

Even worse, I had constant, albeit minor, comfort issues with the optics. In my first hours with the glasses on, I became lightly dizzy from motion and had a headache within minutes of wearing them. The discomfort seems to improve over time, but my eyes still feel jittery after wearing them.

Oppo Air Glasses in the charger

The charging case is connected via USB-C.

Inner view of Oppo glasses in the charger

It is not clear why the case does not cover the lens.

I asked Oppo about the issue, and company spokesperson Krithika Bolama noted that mono screens like Air Glass and Google Glass can cause a headache for some buyers. Via email, AR optics expert and KGOnTech Writer Carl Guttag agreed that a single lens – with a focal length effectively focused at infinity – could be the culprit. “You may have a conflict between one eye focusing on infinity and the other eye focusing on the real world,” Guttaj said, noting that I can confirm this by trying to keep my other eye focused on the distance.

This tracks down with my casual experience, where performing close-range tasks like cooking or looking at a screen makes me sick as I walk around with step-by-step directions. (On the other hand, I’ve used Google Glass in similar ways without any inconvenience.) Guttag also suggested that Micro LED flashing might make some people sick, though he said I’ve probably noticed a problem with the HoloLens 2 like well, something that wasn’t a problem In the past.

Front view of the Oppo Air Glass

The tires look normal. Mono-lens on the frames…not quite.

I’m not sure how prevalent my reaction would be; My husband wore the Air Glass lens for about 15 minutes, long enough to give me a headache, without incident. I’m not really sure why that is since I’ve been good at headphones with similar designs. But it’s an example of the complications that augmented reality devices add to computing and the kind of thing that holds back augmented reality — the threat of physical pain is a deal-breaker for many technology consumers.

It appears that Oppo is envisioning the Air Glass as one of a potential group of devices that people will wear and that people might buy. It doesn’t replicate all the features of something like consumer Nreal smart glasses, which allow you to watch streaming video and even play Steam games. Future versions are supposed to get support for more colors, but the goal isn’t an all-in-one computing package. It’s more like eyeglasses equivalent to a smartwatch.

But even with all of these caveats, including the fact that I almost certainly won’t see one for sale in America, using the Air Glass is an oddly cool experience.. It’s a form factor that major players like Apple and Meta don’t seem to explore seriously, and it addresses some of my biggest concerns about AR as a platform. And while the entire field of consumer eyewear is one big experience, there is plenty of room for weirdness.

Leave a Comment