Meta’s new VR/AR Quest Pro headset costs $1,500. A HoloLens 2? $3,500. Magic Jump 2? $3,000. The little HoloKit XI carried to swipe AR fireballs at a holographic avatar with my magic wand? $129. All it requires is an iPhone.
Before VR was a thing you could easily get at any Target or Best Buy, companies like Samsung and Google sold small glasses you’d drop your phone to see cheap, but surprisingly effective virtual images. Using the HoloKit X brought me back to that time almost a decade ago, but now it’s for AR. The simple visor and headband uses a wide variety of iPhones to support their built-in AR capabilities, creating head-up images that I can see on my face.
I tried a few demos of HoloKit X at an NFT gallery in New York, led by its creator, Amber Hu. The Holokit concept has been something Hu has been working on for years, but the latest headset is one that Hu feels is ready to go because of how advanced devices like the iPhone have become.
My demos were a mixed bag. I did see 3D things, like a glowing Buddha made of flowing dots, appear before me. HoloKit X works with hand tracking, so I could even extend my hands to “touch” the 3D object. The headset makes the iPhone vibrate, so I felt a buzzing reaction on my face, which didn’t feel as weird as you might think.
I found that objects did not stay in place all the time, however, sometimes drifted a bit. Hu says this is because the iPhone processor is heavily taxed, and is working on solutions to optimize the experience (it was better for me when standing).
Even so, technically the headset can do full-motion tracking with the iPhone cameras, similar to how a VR or AR headset would with its built-in headsets. Hu wants to ambitiously go even further, using the Apple Watch as a motion tracker for certain apps (the one where I used my magic wand to swipe attacks used the Apple Watch for gesture recognition). Spatial audio, even moving through spaces, can work while wearing AirPods.
The headset is nothing more than a phone holder combined with an angled reflective visor that mirrors the iPhone screen to my point of view: OLED screen iPhones like mine can create AR effects with perfect transparency when the screen is black. The phone automatically orients and connects to the glasses using NFC, and an exposed strip of screen above the top edge of the glasses cleverly acts as a touch screen to launch or exit apps, or even have additional controls. The elastic headband on the goggles stretches over my large head quite well, and the rubber-lined goggles fit over my glasses without applying too much pressure.
The whole idea of connecting iPhones, the Apple Watch, and AirPods into an AR headset feels exactly like where I imagined Apple was going with its long-awaited AR headset — except the Holokit X does it now, and for just $ 129. Granted, the experience right now feels like “you get what you pay for,” and it’s hard to say how many apps will work with this headset in the future (Hu insists that the headset isn’t actually a developer, and instead will be a product that leans on interested artistic and content partners to make experiences). Right now, the HoloKit X app, which I tested at TestFlight and will be available in the App Store at the end of the month, has only nine experiences that Hu calls “Realities.” Hu sees a shared AR experience as rules, and shared experiences the main goal of where HoloKit X could go.
Sharing seems like the most interesting forte of the headset. The app-like Reality games could be played by multiple people at the same time with other headsets or with their phones using the app. The app can also record and share videos that can layer AR effects with people to create a mixed reality that is difficult to create on other AR headsets these days (see the video embedded to see an example).
While HoloKit X seems like a work in progress, it also makes sense to me. All art galleries trying to develop AR experiences could use small glasses like these for visitors instead of investing in expensive headsets. Regular phone AR app cross-support also means the headset part could be optional – which is exactly the speed of where most casual AR researchers are at these days.
As more AR headsets begin to inevitably arrive in the next few years, HoloKit X asks that same interesting question Karto and Gear VR and Daydream asked years ago…can we make these experiences even more random? Maybe the answer was right in our phones all along.