Hands-on with an iPhone-powered AR headset
HoloKit X gave me a preview of Apple technology powering an AR headset, with multiplayer experiences enabled with an iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.
We covered the HoloKit X when it was in development in 2022, and it already looked intriguing. After the official release in December, I got a chance to try it out for myself. I was impressed with the image quality, special effects, and tracking.
AR becomes an alternate reality
The "A" in AR stands for augmented. With the HoloKit X, it might be better to describe it as an alternate reality. Via HoloKit and Apple technology, I got to step into a magical realm that overlaid my own. HoloKit calls these realities. This is, in a way, a preview of what Apple's rumored AR headset will be capable of, since HoloKit is built on Apple's ARkit framework, enabling room scanning, tracking, effects, and spatial audio.
I can have a zen moment, finding and activating hovering, glowing Buddhas, or choose adventure, battling a giant dragon with several friends. HoloKit designed some of its realities for appreciation as art pieces. I can also share the magical effects with friends with iPhones and iPads, making it more inviting. AR is much better as a shared experience.
Other realities are games that allow me to fling magical spells and dodge incoming hexes. HoloKit AR games and experiences have multiplayer features. Each person can play different roles, which vary with each game. In one, I can be a ghost, observer, attacker, or spectator. This is similar to the effects of a Snapchat Lens that uses the rear camera but in much higher quality. Since the HoloKit X is an AR headset, I can go hands-free and also get to enjoy stereoscopic depth cues.
Spectator mode is available in every reality, allowing people not wearing a HoloKit X to peek into this magical world. They'll see HoloKit players wielding magical shields and flinging power. If you have one, you can cast spells with a wand, but a pen works just as well. I simply waved my hand without any props, and that worked perfectly.
The HoloKit provides a direct view of my surroundings through a polycarbonate viewport. My iPhone rests above my eyes, allowing the screen to reflect off an internal mirror to produce a bright and vivid AR display. Lenses within the headset focus the image to a crispness that matches my iPhone's retina display.
The headset is comfortable, and the halo strap relieves most of the nose pressure. My iPhone 13 Pro Max is heavy even in my hand, and I do feel the HoloKit pressing on the bridge of my nose. Padding with foam or microfiber might help when playing for a long time.
HoloKit X requirements
At $129, the AR quality is excellent. To achieve this degree of brightness with a wide field of view and solid tracking at such a low cost, HoloKit X is dependent on recent Apple technology. I need two compatible iPhones, two AirPods, two Apple Watches, an iPad, and two other people for the ultimate experience.
Over half the US population owns an iPhone, and the Apple Watch is overwhelmingly popular, so many people can use the HoloKit X with Apple products they already own.
I have an iPhone 13 Pro Max and an Apple Watch SE, which gave me full access to all the games and experiences, but some require multiple players. My iPhone 11 worked with a prerelease version of the HoloKit app, but it now requires an iPhone XS, XS Max, or one of the iPhone Pro models that Apple started selling in 2020.
A glimpse into an AR future
The dragon game looks amazing, and I could fly it around, making it appear from a flaming portal, and shoot fireballs around my garden. Luckily, plants are unaffected by AR flames. Unfortunately, I couldn't fight against the dragon or try the multiplayer games because my other iPhone isn't compatible.
I was able to battle an NPC and try the solo realities. I have an iPad Pro made in 2018 that lets my wife watch in spectator mode, but it lacks LiDAR, excluding some of the realities. I'm nice and share my iPhone, so she also gets to play.
I'll be eager to try the dragon battle when I get another compatible iPhone or meet up with friends with iPhones. This game requires at least two players since one becomes the dragon, and others try to defeat it as it flies around and shoots fireballs. A large space is also needed, and most games work best outdoors or in a large room.
Watching on the iPad while the magical blasts fly and special effects flow around people is almost as fun. Still, I've only scratched the surface of what's possible with the HoloKit X headset.
I asked the creator of HoloKit if he was concerned about Apple's upcoming AR headset. To the contrary, he said he welcomed its arrival. AR needs to grow, and Apple can help make that happen.
Compared to Apple's Reality Pro, which will reportedly cost $3,000, the HoloKit X is a bargain, even if you need to get an Apple Watch or upgrade to a newer iPhone.