Let me ask you a question: Do you really want to buy a pair of Personal Cinema glasses? As cool as they could be, they always feel like an artefact from a dystopia that’s yet to engulf us. When the air burns and the seas boil, you won’t be able to fit a 40-inch HDTV into your existence-support-pod, so these will have to do. It hardly screams “aspirational.”
It doesn’t help that nobody — not Sony, Avegant, Royole nor others — has managed to make this concept work. Personal cinemas, then, have replaced VR as the go-to whenever anyone needs to talk about a product that’s perennially on the edge of breaking through, and never has. But, despite them being a solution in search of a problem, and their historical suckiness, things may be about to change.
You see, TCL has been banging against this particular door for years and now, it’s gearing up to launch its first model. The Nxtwear G Wearable Display Glasses solve many of the problems that dogged those earlier attempts. They’re not perfect, and you’ll probably not want to buy a pair now, but this is the closest anyone has gotten to making this concept work.
TCL’s Nxtwear G puts two tiny displays close to your eyes in order to trick you into thinking you’re looking at a bigger screen. Rather than cram the glasses full of tech, TCL put two displays, a pair of speakers and positioning hardware inside. That keeps the weight down to a very manageable 130 grams (4.5 oz), much kinder to your neck for long-term wear.
Everything else, including power, is handled by the device you plug this into, and the list of compatible hardware is pretty long. You can use major phones from Samsung, LG and OnePlus, as well as over 30 laptops and more than 25 tablets and 2-in-1s. Essentially, TCL made a plug-and-play external display for your head that should play nice with any compatible DisplayPort-equipped USB-C device.
The company decided to swim against much of the received wisdom that we’ve seen with other personal cinemas. Rather than trying to enclose the user in a black void, all the better to replicate that tenth-screen-in-a-mall-multiplex feeling, TCL wants you to see the outside world. Even when I tried the prototype, back in 2019, its representatives said that you should feel comfortable wearing this on public transport, interacting with people as you do.
With every device I’ve tried them with, you simply need to plug the Nxtwear G in and everything starts. If you’re using a compatible TCL phone, you’ll get a pop-up asking if you want to use mirror mode, or PC mode, which sets you up inside Android’s desktop mode. The phone then acts as a touchpad for you to navigate around with your finger, although if you want to do more than hunt-and-peck, buy a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
Connecting it to my MacBook Pro, too, and the machine recognized it as an external display and I was able to work and watch TV with my primary displays turned off. In fact, I wrote a chunk of this piece while inside this thing, even if I had to turn the zoom up to mad levels to make sure everything was readable.
The Nxtwear G packs a pair of 16:9, 60Hz micro-OLED 1080p displays that the company says is the equivalent to a 140-inch screen. That requires the usual suspension of ocular disbelief but the effect works here, and the speakers do their job well enough. It’s worth saying that they are essentially blasting audio in every direction, so grab your Bluetooth headphones if, say, your partner gets really annoyed when they can hear you watching Columbo when you’re both in bed.
I don't know if you should expect pixel-perfect video quality from a pair of screens this tiny but be advised that they won't beat your smartphone. Certainly, HD video looks fine, but the smallness of the screens means it's really tough to see good detail. Colors were washed out, certainly compared to the footage that was playing back on the TCL 20 Pro 5G and MacBook Pro I was connected to during testing.
TCL’s pitch is to say that, as well as passive viewing, you can also use the glasses to work and it’s here that I think TCL may have some success. As I said, it’s possible to work with these on, and it would make sense to use them if you had to view sensitive documents. When you’re working, say, on a train, this is the perfect antidote to shoulder surfers and other drive-by snoopers. Of course, for whoever makes the inevitable joke about watching adult content with nobody noticing, have a cookie.
What TCL has managed to do is, several times over, solve the riddle as to why you could ever want to use a personal cinema. There are times and places where you could do so both for work (more or less) and play (in some circumstances). Unfortunately, while the company was making great strides to solve the technical issues, it didn’t have a huge amount of time to devote to making this experience comfortable.
Your mileage may vary, but I found using these glasses to be a delightful experience right up until the moment it became painful. It is, right now, impossible to use these for a prolonged period of time before something starts hurting, either inside or outside your skull.
One of the more problematic design decisions that TCL took was to include a trio of nose pads that push the screen up and higher. The idea is to keep the screens in line with your eyes, but the unfortunate result is that you need to put the nose pads way down your nose. Like, to the point where you feel like, no matter the size, it feels like you’re wearing those wire grips to close your nostrils that professional swimmers wear during sporting events.
Then there’re the Temple Tips, the part of the glasses arms which bend down to hook over your ears. Whereas with regular glasses those tips are semi-plastic and can be adjusted by an optician (or at home, with a hairdryer and some guile), the Nxtwear G’s arms are rigid. Prolonged periods of wear mean that you’ll get two slices of hard plastic sticking into the soft fleshy bit of your head behind your ears.
The solution I found to alleviate both of those issues, at least for a bit, was to pull out the nose pads entirely and wear them as I would regular glasses. After all, as a seasoned specs wearer, I accepted that the experience might not be as good — but found that this was actually better. I got a full view of the screen and it was significantly more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. But, unfortunately, the reason the nose pads stand the glasses off your schnozz is to avoid it getting warm, since the Nxtwear G does generate a decent amount of warmth (not heat, warmth, mind you).
And then, finally, there’s the issue of eye strain which, no matter how I wore these things, still meant I had to give up for significant rest periods. Maybe, it’s because I’m short-sighted, and so my eyes are already weak and feeble compared to the average personal cinema enjoyer. But I doubt it, and suspect that lots of people may run the risk of an eye-strain headache if they use this for too long at once.
Now, I bet you’re thinking ‘gee, if these were priced like an accessory, I’d grab a pair just to see what the fuss is about.’ I don’t blame TCL for needing to recoup some of the development costs for these things, but boy. These glasses are going on sale in Oz for $899 AUS, which is the better part of $700 in the US. Heck, you can buy TCL’s new 20 Pro 5G for $500 and just hold it near to your face and pat yourself on the back for your thriftiness.
Facetiousness aside, I think TCL deserves enormous credit for making what can only be described as the best wearable display ever made. And if you’re able, I’d say you should go and try these out, because my comfort-related dealbreakers may not affect you. And TCL deserves a fair crack at making these things cheaper and a little less prone to pinching, because we’re so damn close. Sincerely, if personal cinemas are going to become a success, it’ll be because it follows the template that TCL has laid down. It just needs a few tweaks.