Make Mixed Reality for Everyone: Interview with Nreal CEO Xu Chi
Rushing into the interview room breathlessly, the young man checked his watch twice before walking towards the camera to greet me. “Could you please groom yourself before going on camera,” asked his assistant anxiously. “I don’t need that. Isn’t it nice to be real,” he looked back at me with a smirk.
This is Xu Chi, the CEO and co-founder of Nreal, a trending mixed reality (MR) start-up. Nreal is one of the most popular companies in the field, having won over several well-known investors like Qualcomm, short video app Kuaishou, video streaming app iQiyi, and GP Capital.
Most people know Xu due to his dispute with American virtual reality company Magic Leap. In June 2019, Magic Leap accused Xu of stealing AR glasses technology when he was an engineer working at the firm. However, in June 2020, a U.S. federal court threw out the case as Magic Leap failed to make any viable claim.
“That’s the impression that they try to put on us, that we’re backed by the Chinese government, or we’re stealing the technology. It’s not always the case,” said Xu in an interview with VentureBeat.
Xu told Pandaily that the reason behind Magic Leap’s accusations may be a big firm’s surprise in witnessing the rapid expansion of a small Chinese startup. “The speed of China’s technology development is unprecedented. I believe that’s exactly the speed of Chinese entrepreneurs. This dispute also reminded me to secure my products with intellectual property support.”
After obtaining a Ph.D. in computer architecture at the University of Minnesota and working in Silicon Valley for years, Xu moved back to China in 2016. With a vision to bring mixed reality a step closer to actual reality, Xu co-founded Nreal in Beijing in 2017 with a college schoolmate and ventured into integrating artificial intelligence seamlessly into interactive experiences.
Nreal’s flagship product, Nreal Light, is the first augmented reality (AR) device in the form of ultra-lightweight (106g) sunglasses. It is also the first AR device that connects to mobile phones. The mobile phone will work as a pointer for what you see in the glasses. Trying on the glasses, I can see a digital overlay of visuals on the real-world surroundings.
SEE ALSO: Kuaishou-backed MR Glasses Developer Nreal Raises $40 Million in B1 Round of Financing
Last Wednesday, Xu sat down with Pandaily in Shanghai and discussed his latest innovations and experiences in the MR world.
Xintian Wang: After completing your Ph.D. in America, how did you make the decision to start up your own business back in China?
Xu Chi: I planned to start up my own business when I was at Zhejiang University. While I was studying in America, the urge to become an entrepreneur grew stronger. However, I did not start my business when I was in school, because I thought having various kinds of experiences is very important for an entrepreneur.
I remember the time when AR got super popular in 2015 and 2016. To me, this industry was like a piece of raw jade stone. You knew it would become a trend in the next ten years. When an entrepreneur established a platform for AR in China and gained huge success, I asked myself that “why can’t I be this guy.” At that time, I thought: “one may never be fully ready to start up a business, so I have to grasp the opportunity.”
After I left Magic Leap and came back to China, I did not start my business right away. I joined a small start-up company because I was not confident enough to establish my own team. I remembered an investor told me that I am too far away from what I am passionate about right now. His words struck me so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and produced my own AR glasses.
XW: How did your experiences overseas pave the way for your future career or perspective？
XC: My study-abroad experiences broadened my horizon. I am more willing to get to know something I’d never seen before. Hence, I am more open to diverse views now. I think America is more experienced in exploring potential markets and we have a lot to learn from them.
XW: You’ve mentioned earlier that Nreal is trying to enter both B2C and B2B segments, did you see the firm successfully achieve its mission to “bring MR for everyone”?
XC: In a business’s earlier stage, I don’t think it is necessary to choose from either one of the markets (B2B or B2C). This is like the threshold effect, an effect in a dependent variable that does not occur until a certain level is reached in an independent variable. If we can upgrade our products to offer the ultimate interactive experience, then we will see the two markets differentiate with their clear closed-loop systems.
This is an endless journey and we’d just bought the ticket to this mission. You will witness more brand revolutions from us in the future. I think the spatial interaction and internet interaction models are not defined yet. For now, we have created an effective interactive model with existing technology but the ultimate interactive experience is yet to come.
XW: We’ve seen Nreal partnered with many industry leaders, how do you see the future of Nreal in cross-branding?
XC: You may find the most exciting application scenarios in the B2C market. We will see more industries like education, entertainment, and tourism transform a 2D visual into a 3D immersive experience in real life. We cannot do this on our own, so we need every industry’s talents. It will be a challenge for all kinds of global industries in the future.
XW: Under the rising influence of 5G, how will Nreal adapt to this ecosystem?
XC: We don’t want to blindly chase the 5G trend. I think 5G acts as the catalyst for us to upgrade our products that can actually meet users’ requirements. For example, in a vertical industry, we can increase a product’s efficiency with 5G. If our users respond positively to this upgrade, then it is beneficial. If we devote more than the reward, then it may not be necessary.
XW: Nreal currently mainly targets the overseas market. Do you think China is not ready for welcoming MR in the country?
XC: We did not mean to make this happen. We have different priorities at this stage. Some countries respond quickly to technological innovations’ commercialization. For instance, Korea responded quickly to 5G’s commercialization and they are willing to try it out. In this case, we will experiment with Korea and relaunch this successful business model in other countries. For a big country like China, it has a complicated business ecosystem and it may respond slower to a product launch. However, if you position the product in the right place, it will develop rapidly. Therefore, we are still looking for great ways to launch our products in China.
Since we had a talented team investigating the bioptic algorithm, we are confident in our products. We don’t want to be “the best” in this industry, but we are looking to revolutionize this industry with more like-minded partners.
XW: I know Nreal is expected to launch its new MR glasses for enterprise users this year. Can you give us more details and application scenarios for this product?
XC: Even if this product is called “ enterprise edition,” you can also use it for gaming. The basic technology is similar to Nreal Light as it’s light-weighted, comfortable to wear, and has high-resoluntion. However, it is not a device for individual use. You can wear it at work in industrial engineering circumstances with a team. Compared to a headset, people are more willing to wear a pair of glasses all day long.
XW: How will Nreal’s future products offer a game-changing interactive experience for consumers?
XC: MR is a very interesting and challenging market. We hope to see Nreal position itself with a unique branding identity in the industry in the next five to ten years. We want to run forward step by step to achieve our ultimate goal to bring a refreshing interactive MR experience for everyone.