If you need proof that Apple is working on a mixed reality headset, try the HoloKit X. Created by Botao Amber Hu, a developer who has worked at companies like DJI, Google, and Twitter and is now CEO and founder of Holo Interactive, this headset fully leverages existing iPhone capabilities to create hands-free, interactive augmented reality experiences. It’s a powerful showcase of what’s possible if Apple made a headset using technology already built into its smartphone.
Such a helmet coming out of Cupertino would almost certainly cost over a thousand dollars. (It’s Apple, after all.) Look to Meta’s new mixed reality headset for reference; it starts at $1,499. Microsoft’s XR platform headsets cost between $600 and $1,000. These high prices are the reason the HoloKit X exists. Hu, who has a long-standing interest in future computing and new media art, says he wants to “democratize” the world of mixed reality. As such, the HoloKit X costs $129, and all you need is a recent iPhone (barring the iPhone Mini and iPhone SE models) to power it.
An iPhone on your head
The HoloKit X is a plastic helmet with optical lenses inside. There’s no technology here (except for an NFC sensor, but more on that later). Just think of it as a spectator, much like the old-school View-Masters. Similar to mobile VR headsets like Google Cardboard, Lenovo’s AR set for Star Wars games, or the older Google Daydream, you need to mount an iPhone to the HoloKit X.
Unlike VR headsets, you’re not looking at a screen. The iPhone is mounted and away from your eyes. Instead, you look through the glass in a 60 degree field of view and can see the physical world as well as the people around you. The iPhone screen, while using the rear cameras to drive these AR experiences, is mirrored in stereoscopic vision on the lenses, allowing you to effectively see virtual 3D objects embedded in the real world.
Exactly what you can do with the HoloKit X is limited at this time. There are only a handful of experiences – what Hu calls “realities” – in the HoloKit app, one of which is a multiplayer dueling game where you cast spells on an enemy. The visuals are bright, colorful and quite crisp, and the platform supports six degrees of freedom through Apple’s ARKit framework. Because of this, you can move virtual objects around and they will stay anchored to the real world places you position them. And when playing a game, you can even duck to dodge explosions. The “enemy” could be another person using a HoloKit X in a shared space, a virtual character, or even a character controlled by someone with just an iPhone.
Since it’s powered entirely by an iPhone, the HoloKit app takes advantage of existing technologies. The ability to play a game with other HoloKit X users, for example, does not rely on cellular data or Wi-Fi, but rather on the local network technology that powers AirDrop. It’s also what powers “Spectator View,” which lets anyone use an iPhone and the HoloKit app to view your augmented reality experience in real time by pointing their phone at the scene. (You can save and share this on social media, or stream it via AirPlay to a TV for others to see.) Hu says Holo Interactive is also working on a Puppeteer mode that would let someone else direct your AR experience.
There are several ways to interact with the augmented reality experience. The HoloKit app uses Apple’s Vision frame technology to identify and track your hand. I haven’t seen a demonstration of this, but the idea is that you can just use your hands to interact with objects and the iPhone cameras will recognize your hand movements. Hu says HoloKit also supports any Bluetooth device that can connect to the iPhone, like PlayStation controllers.
What I did demo was the ability to use an Apple Watch’s gyroscope as a motion controller, just like a Wiimote. Hu strapped an Apple Watch to my wrist (it works with Watch Series 4 and newer) with the HoloKit watch app installed and running, and gave me a wand purely so I could feel as if I was using it to cast spells. Lo and behold, I was able to cast spells with simple gestures or a flick of my wrist. I could even point my wand down to charge up a charge bar and trigger a more powerful spell. Using Spatial Audio through one of Apple’s headphones that support this feature helps with immersion, so you can hear a spell pass in front of your right ear. The iPhone’s haptic vibration adds another layer of sensory input, but because the phone is mounted in the headset, it only vibrates near your forehead, so you can’t immediately feel it.
You can use the HoloKit X with an iPhone XS, XS Max, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 and 13 Pro Max, iPhone 14, and iPhone 14 and 14 Pro Max. (You’ll need to remove your case for it to fit.) You’ll get the best experience from an iPhone with a lidar sensor, which has become a staple on Pro models, starting with the iPhone 12 series.