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This remarkable iPhone-powered headset gave me a glimpse into Apple's AR future

The $129 HoloKit X leverages the iPhone's existing technology to bring you into the wizarding world of AR.
Written by Kerry Wan, Senior Reviews Editor

For what seems like an eternity now, Apple has been dropping hints about the company's first-ever AR/VR headset. Although nothing has been confirmed yet, and it may still be 2-3 years before anything floats to the surface, products like the HoloKit X gives us a glimpse of what Apple's AR future could look like.

The HoloKit X is an iPhone accessory that leverages technology that you're probably already using, such as 3D environmental perception via the iPhone's LiDAR scanner and local network connectivity via the same low energy frequencies that power AirDrop, to create immersive augmented reality experiences. The company's founder, Botao Amber Hu, has high ambitions for his iPhone-powered headset -- and believes that his approach is the most accessible one yet. 

Also: Best AR glasses: Pro-level AR and XR headsets

An iPhone for an eye

A key component of the HoloKit X is its integration with the iPhone and Apple Watch (more on the wearable later). Unlike typical mixed reality headsets that need to be tethered or charged, the HoloKit X is simply a vehicle for your iPhone engine, with support ranging from the latest iPhone 14 Pro Max to the iPhone XS. Ideally, Hu says, an iPhone with LiDAR support works best when exploring the many "Realities" that his team of ten has created. That means anything from the iPhone 12 Pro and above should do. Anything older will still be functional but produce less-accurate 3D perceptions. 

HoloKit X with iPhone attached

The HoloKit X uses NFC and low-energy Bluetooth to communicate with the iPhone. 

June Wan/ZDNET

Setting up the HoloKit X is as simple as opening one of the Realities via the HoloKit app from your iPhone, slotting the device into the headset, and letting the stereoscopic lenses translate what's on the iPhone's screen over your central vision. Naturally, Hu calls his technology "StAR", short for Stereoscopic AR. 

There's a total of 10 Realities that you can currently experience. 

June Wan/ZDNET

Through a strategic alignment of mirrors and windows, you're technically never staring directly at your phone screen, as you would on, say, a Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR. This greatly reduces eye strain and adds to what is generally a comfortable headset-wearing experience. It's glasses-friendly, too.

Also: I've been thinking about Apple's AR/VR headset, and I just don't believe it

The actual HoloKit X headpiece is made with hard plastic and elastic bands which contribute to a lighter framework at the expense of a cheaper hand feel. "Cheap" is definitely not the aesthetic that Hu is going for, though. While the hardware of the HoloKit X is final, he envisions partnerships with streetwear brands like Supreme and Off-White that bring their signature designs to the headband of the AR headset. Again, high ambitions. 

HoloKit X iPhone Placement

A series of mirrors bounce the visuals on the iPhone onto the transparent viewfinder at the bottom. 

June Wan/ZDNET

The wizarding world of AR

Now, for the fun part: seeing things around you that no one else can... unless they're also synchronized to your local HoloKit channel. See, the HoloKit X has no technology built-in whatsoever, save for an NFC tag that Hu says helps the app detect what iPhone you're using to adjust the visual scaling and collect anonymous data of which Realities users are playing in. Everything -- and I mean everything -- is powered by the iPhone. For example, the iPhone dials into low-energy Bluetooth, instead of cellular and Wi-Fi, to host local channels for other HoloKit X owners to join or spectate. 

Also: Meet the companies that will shape the metaverse

That means that with a scan of a uniquely-generated QR code, those around you can spectate your game with their iPhone or iPad as the viewfinder. It's a genius way to get everyone in the party involved. In fact, you can probably see much more via spectator mode than the somewhat lackluster, 60-degree field of view that the headset provides to the actual user. That's one area that I'd love to see improved with future iterations.

Here's what a spectator would see. Don't mind me blasting away at an AI.

June Wan/ZDNET

Besides the spectator view, the Harry Potter action above also demonstrates the HoloKit's Apple Watch integration. With the wearable equipped, motion control tracking is enabled and, therefore, allows me to cast magical spells with the flick of the wrist. You can also see in the GIF how the HoloKit X utilizes Apple's ARKit for six degrees of freedom spatial tracking. This means that elements like the energy shields and the AI character will stay in one place, even if I move around. 

What you don't see in the fighting montage is how Spatial Audio and haptics come into play. Clearly, Hu wants to maximize the technology that Apple has to offer, including its proprietary surround sound experience when you put on a pair of AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. So when you're walking around in one of the more sensory-based Realities, the audio effects will adapt to how and where you're positioned in the room. 

Review: AirPods Pro 2 offer two big upgrades with one major drawback

The haptics, too, provide vibrational feedback as you're interacting within the Realities. For example, the iPhone would produce a minor buzz whenever I took a hit by a spell attack.

Notice how well the LiDAR sensor detects household objects to enhance the visual effects.

June Wan/ZDNET

There's more potential for the HoloKit X than just magic tricks and games, though. Hu sees the AR experiences expanding into the realm of NFTs, serving as virtual gallery exhibits for digital artists. 

Also: How these companies see VR as the future of business

Pay (less) to play

Like it or not, the price for entry into the metaverse is not cheap. Meta's just-announced Quest 2 Pro starts at $1,499, and the Quest 2 saw a $100 bump earlier this year. That's what makes the HoloKit X's $129 sticker price all the more astonishing. 

Since the company opened up its online store in late October, Hu says that most buyers are opting for the twin bundle, which comes with two headsets for a discounted price. It's only $9 in savings but the demand there suggests to Hu that it's the face-to-face aspect of the HoloKit X that's resonating with consumers the most. After all, in AR, you can see the actual person that you're interacting with, and not some creepy, emotionless avatar. 

The man behind the mask

Prior to venturing into the mixed reality space, Botao Amber Hu worked at Google, Twitter, DJI, and a few other big-name companies that dominate Silicon Valley. It was at DJI, in particular, where he was able to explore the capabilities of LiDAR scanning and depth mapping, impressed by how cameras and sensors could measure the distances of objects in real life. Naturally, Hu merged his expertise in robotics and computing with his love for creating art and founded Holo Interactive. 

Also: Best VR headsets for gaming, the metaverse, and beyond

The HoloKit X isn't meant to enhance your productivity or be sold to enterprises as a business tool, Hu tells me. Instead, he just wants the AR headset to bring feelings of joy and wonder to people's lives. It's a philosophy that's not too far off from that of the best-selling VR/AR headset on the market, the Meta Quest 2. But unlike the Quest 2, the HoloKit X doesn't transport you to a whole other world or cause motion sickness. Instead, it applies an overlay of interactive graphics that blend naturally with your surroundings, all without taking away from your perception of where you stand. The latter part is crucial in reducing that nauseating feeling when wearing these reality-bending headsets, Hu claims. 

HoloKit X next to Meta Quest 2

The Meta Quest 2 (right) next to the HoloKit X (left) take to VR and AR, respectively, to alter reality.

June Wan/ZDNET

And for the question that was in the back of my mind during my one-on-one: Plans for Android compatibility? Hu didn't even bat an eye. "For now, iPhones are the most reliable and consistent in terms of performance. There are hardware limitations, too, like the lack of LiDAR sensors on Android handsets." 

In fact, even within the iOS platform, Hu and the team have held off on releasing the HoloKit's software development kit in hopes of building out the app from the ground up internally. The official version of the HoloKit app is slated for the end of November. In the meantime, buyers can test out the AR software via TestFlight.

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