Are augmented reality and virtual reality mutually exclusive? One ambitious startup, Sulon Technologies, doesn't think so. Though it's still early days for the company's standalone Cortex AR/VR headset, it's managed to merge immersion and augmentation in some pretty fascinating ways. We spent some time with a prototype at CES 2015.
If you thought VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and Gear VR looked funky, wait until you see the Sulon Cortex. On the front, it looks a lot like those headsets, but then it adds a bulbous growth on its backside. It makes you look a bit like the love child of Master Chief and a rare African fowl.
But that bulb-like structure on the back has an important purpose: it houses multiple sensors (the specifics of which the company is staying tight-lipped on) that can map your surroundings. The team tells us that the headset can detect details about your environment – including how far away walls are and what other objects (like furniture) lie in between – and incorporate them into the virtual/augmented world that you see on its display.
Sulon founder and CEO Dhan Balachand tells us that developers will, at least in theory, be able to create games or experiences that adapt to each user's unique environment. So you could have a shooter where one user's couch becomes cover and another's lamp becomes an ammo refill station. We've yet to see that (and it sounds like that's more "in theory" than something it can do today), but the platform is supposedly moving in that direction.
In our demo, after strapping on the Sulon Cortex, an ordinary meeting room looked almost the same as it did without the headset, including the Sulon reps who were there chatting with us. But – what's this? – on one end of the room sat a swirling and glowing portal. This is, of course, demonstrating the augmented portion of the Sulon Cortex.
As for the virtual part? Well, after being egged on by the Sulon team, I walked through the portal and watched as augmented reality turned into virtual reality. Suddenly I was on a platform in the middle of a fiery pit, with no remaining signs of the meeting room. I could walk around freely (which, unlike with other VR headsets, means physically walking), but the edges of the platform designated where I could go without crashing into walls.
Soon a vicious Hydra emerged from the flames, and I was challenged to defeat it using hand gestures (the headset senses hand position and movement, down to the individual fingers). The gesture tracking was pretty clunky in our demo, but, again, this is a prototype and still a ways off from being a ready-to-roll consumer product.
After taking far too long to defeat the beast, I was nearly squashed as its slithery head fell on top of me, and was left to collect the treasure that it was (naturally) guarding. On the other end of the platform, the portal rematerialized – this time, showing slight glimmers of the Sulon team waiting for me on the other side: the first hint of the augmented reemerging from the virtual.
Walking through the portal again brought me back into the meeting room, and, while chatting with the Sulon team, I began to take the headset off. "But wait," they warned me, "what's that behind you?" Holy shitballs, the portal was still there, and the not-quite-slain Hydra suddenly emerged and enjoyed a crunchy Gizmag writer for a mid-afternoon snack (an unfortunate ending to a fascinating demo).
It's hard to tell how much the sensors are mapping the environment at this point, but the demo was a great peek at what can happen when the headset's forward-facing camera combines live feeds of a real environment with software-based environments. It can go full-on virtual, it can go augmented or – like in this demo – it can cleverly transition from one to the other, and back again.
Apart from building a software library (an SDK is set to launch in the first half of 2015), the biggest next steps for the Cortex appear to be taking the rough edges off the prototype. The headset's display looked solid enough for the demo, but lags far behind Oculus and the Gear VR in terms of resolution and screen quality (Sulon wouldn't tell us what its resolution is, but we're guessing it's sub-720p). The gesture tracking was also, as we mentioned, choppy and inconsistent and the stereoscopic images weren't 100 percent lined up (there was a slight "seeing double" effect).
The team is aware of these issues and, again, was merely showing us a prototype to showcase the device's potential. The same concept with a 1080p or Quad HD screen and smoother gesture tracking could make for some fun new takes on gaming.
So while the Sulon Cortex is still far from being ready for consumers, we think it's going to be worth keeping an eye on. There are some exciting possibilities for gaming here, as well as industrial uses (like a Tony Stark-style engine repair demo the team also showed us). It might not be putting a new medium on the map the way Oculus VR did two years ago, but it is combining two emerging technologies in clever and unexpected ways. The Windows 2-in-1 of techie eyewear, if you will.
The completely wireless Sulon Cortex dev kit will be available in Q1 or Q2, and will cost developers US$500 a pop. You can read more at the company's page below.
Company page: Sulon Technologies