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Sulon's Cortex Headset Aims For Holodeck Experience



Oculus VR has touched off a flood of interest in virtual reality, with many new entrants investigating various approaches to make the technology viable for consumers. Where Oculus is targeting a seated, immersive experience, Sulon is aiming for a full mobility solution with its Cortex headset.

I had the opportunity to test the Cortex in a cleared out hotel room yesterday. The technology, which Sulon CEO Dhan Balachand calls "spatial gaming," maps any room no matter the size using light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology.

Currently, the Cortex is designed to accept any bluetooth-equipped, Android-based phone into the front of the headset. Its augmented reality (AR) functions work using the phone's camera, on which a magnifying lens is affixed. The company is also working on a high-end Android device of its own with stereoscopic cameras to work as a companion to the Cortex headset.

In AR mode, images are placed within the room environment. This was imperfect due to the excessive magnification and related distortion. The virtual reality mode worked better, but it was extremely disconcerting to be moving about a room without being able to see where I was going.

The demo took me from the hotel room in AR mode to a small room looking out over the water with mountains in the distance. The latency was noticeable, though Balachand tells me that it's already been improved upon. With two Razer Hydra motion controllers in hand (Sulon is working directly with Sixense to develop its own solutions), I was able to shoot targets. The final room, accessed by walking through a glowing portal, brought me to a zombie scenario. It was crude, but it drove the point home that I needed to move about the room to avoid my attackers.

Cortex addresses safety in multiple ways. Currently, a loud beeping tone sounds when approaching a wall or other mapped obstacle (you're still going to want to move furniture out of the way. Balachand tells me that the system is equipped to detect collision and can switch to transparency mode should the wearer become to close to a barrier. The adaptive nature of the display accurately maps height, and crouching, kneeling, and leaning are all modeled accurately.

The Cortex has been in development for three years, with the bulk of progress taking place in the last two. The company is making the development kit available for pre-order today for $499, with delivery projected in Q4 2014.

Sulon's approach to VR is opposite to the methodical, iterative approach taken by Oculus. Balachand wants to get the Cortex into consumer hands as quickly as possible. "In order for technology to go mainstream, we need to get it out to the masses," he says.

The company is targeting the indie community for its software, and Balachand tells me that using a Mirrorcast-like app, the Cortex can communicate with the PC. The model I tried was a cobbled together prototype, missing the battery for free movement (I was tethered, with Sulon team members making sure I didn't get tangled), and the LIDAR sensor wasn't optimal.

Balachand says that the development kits will support a four-hour battery life, and that supply chain and manufacturing is completely lined up. The Cortex wasn't the smoothest VR experience I've had, but Sulon is attempting to create a different kind of product than others I've tried.

I'm eager to give it another go once the latency and AR magnification issues are improved. It has potential, but it also has a lot of room to grow.

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