For what seems like forever now, Apple has been dropping hints about the company’s first-ever AR/VR headset. Although nothing has been confirmed yet, and it will take another 2-3 years before anything comes to the surface, products like the HoloKit X gives us a glimpse of what the future of Apple’s AR could look like.
The HoloKit X is an iPhone accessory that leverages technology you’re probably already using, like 3D environmental awareness through the iPhone’s LiDAR scanner and local area network connectivity through the same low-energy frequencies that power AirDrop, to create immersive augmented reality experiences. The company’s founder, Botao Amber Hu, has big ambitions for his iPhone-powered headset – and believes his approach is the most accessible yet.
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An iPhone for an eye
A key part of the HoloKit X is its integration with iPhone and Apple Watch (more on 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 iPhone XS. Ideally, Hu says, an iPhone with LiDAR support works best when exploring the many “realities” his team of ten have created. It means anything iPhone 12 Pro and above should do. Anything older will still be functional but will produce less accurate 3D perceptions.
Setting up the HoloKit X is as simple as opening one of the realities through the HoloKit app from your iPhone, inserting the device into the headset, and letting the stereoscopic lenses translate what’s on the iPhone screen on your central vision. Naturally, Hu calls his technology “StAR”, short for Stereoscopic AR.
Thanks to a strategic alignment of mirrors and windows, you’re never technically looking directly at your phone’s screen like you would on, say, a Google Daydream Where Samsung Gear VR. This greatly reduces eye strain and adds to what is generally a comfortable headset wearing experience. It is also compatible with glasses.
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The HoloKit X headset is made with hard plastic and elastic bands which contribute to a lighter frame at the expense of a cheaper hand feel. “Cheap” is definitely not the aesthetic Hu is going for, though. While the hardware for the HoloKit X is final, it envisions partnerships with streetwear brands like Supreme and Off-White who bring their iconic designs to the AR headset headband. Again, high ambitions.
The magical world of AR
Now for the fun part: seeing things around you that no one else can see…unless they’re also synced to your local HoloKit channel. You see, the HoloKit X doesn’t have any built-in technology except for an NFC tag that Hu says helps the app detect which iPhone you’re using to adjust visual scaling and collect anonymous data that Realities users play on. – and I mean everything — is powered by the iPhone. For example, the iPhone connects to low-energy Bluetooth, instead of cellular and Wi-Fi, to host local channels that other HoloKit X owners can join or watch.
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This means that with a scan of a uniquely generated QR code, those around you can watch your game with their iPhone or iPad as their viewfinder. It’s a great way to get everyone involved in the party. In fact, you can probably see a lot more via spectator mode than the somewhat lackluster 60-degree field of view the headset affords the actual user. This is an area I would like to see improved with future iterations.
Besides the viewer’s view, the Harry Potter action above also demonstrates the Apple Watch integration of the HoloKit. With the wearable equipped, motion control tracking is enabled and therefore allows me to cast magic spells with a flick of the wrist. You can also see in the GIF how the HoloKit X uses Apple’s ARKit for six degrees of freedom spatial tracking. This means that things like energy shields and the AI character will stay in one place even if I move around.
What you don’t see in the battle montage is how spatial audio and haptics come into play. Clearly, Hu wants to maximize the technology offered by Apple, including its proprietary surround sound experience when you put on a pair of AirPods Pro Where AirPods Max. So when you walk through one of the most sensory realities, the audio effects will adapt to how and where you are in the room.
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Haptics also provide vibrational feedback as you interact with Realities. For example, the iPhone was making a minor buzz whenever I took a hit from a spell attack.
However, the HoloKit X has more potential than just magic tricks and games. Hu sees AR experiences expanding into the realm of NFTs, serving as virtual gallery exhibits for digital artists.
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Pay (less) to play
Like it or not, the price of entry into the Metaverse isn’t cheap. The Quest 2 Pro just announced by Meta is starting to $1,499and the Quest 2 saw a $100 bump earlier this year. This is what makes the HoloKit X $129 sticker price all the more surprising.
Since the company opened its online store in late October, Hu said most shoppers have opted for the dual pack, which includes two headsets at a discounted price. It’s only $9 in savings, but the request suggests to Hu that it’s the face-to-face aspect of the HoloKit X that resonates the most with consumers. After all, in AR you can see the real person you’re interacting with, not a scary, emotionless avatar.
The man behind the mask
Before venturing into the mixed reality space, Botao Amber Hu worked at Google, Twitter, DJI, and a few other big companies that dominate Silicon Valley. It was at DJI, in particular, where he was able to explore LiDAR scanning and depth mapping capabilities, impressed with how cameras and sensors could measure distances to objects in real life. Naturally, Hu merged his expertise in robotics and computer science with his love for creating art and founded Holo Interactive.
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The HoloKit X is not intended to improve your productivity or to be sold to companies as a business tool, Hu tells me. Instead, he just wants the AR headset to bring feelings of joy and wonder into people’s lives. It’s a philosophy not too far removed 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 into your surroundings, all without detracting from your perception of where you are. That last part is crucial to reducing that foul feeling when wearing these reality-distorting helmets, Hu claims.
And for the question that ran through my head during my one-on-one: Plans for Android compatibility? Hu didn’t even blink. “For now, iPhones are the most reliable and consistent in terms of performance. There are also hardware limitations, like the lack of LiDAR sensors on Android handsets.”
In fact, even within the iOS platform, Hu and the team delayed the release of the HoloKit SDK in hopes of building the app from scratch internally. The official version of the HoloKit application is scheduled for the end of November. In the meantime, buyers can test the AR software through TestFlight.
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