Two months ago, Sulon Technologies broke cover with a video showcasing a bulky augmented reality and virtual reality system. Fast-forward to today. The chunky backpack and headset combo has been replaced by a much, much smaller second prototype -- it's just a headset with a power cord coming out the back. Oh, and it's got a name: The Cortex. If you're a tinkerer, you can pre-order the dev kit version to follow this new prototype -- the company claims this more polished hardware will be shipping out in Q4 of 2014. It'll cost you $500 to get this particular peek into the future, though, so read on to find out what it's like wandering around with the dev kit's hacked-together portable predecessor on your melon.
When I first laid eyes on Sulon's new headset, it was immediately apparent that I'd be demoing a very rough prototype. The eye cups (but not the optics) are ripped straight from an Oculus Rift, and much of the electronics attached to the headset's straps are wrapped in black gaffer tape. A custom-made spatial scanner sits up top and is stuffed with LIDAR, ultrasonic scanners and cameras. That combo's what maps its surroundings, thereby ensuring proper graphics placement both during augmented reality and virtual reality sessions.
The brain of the spatial scanner is a bit of silicon called a spatial processing unit -- it's dedicated solely to tracking everything the system needs to work, and that info gets beamed to the phone on your face through Bluetooth. And, while the spatial scanner maps the room the Cortex is in, it locates your hands by working with Razer's Hydra wireless nunchuck controller.
Once Sulon's software has interpreted all that info, it can overlay graphics onto your surroundings. Rather than using see-through displays like Meta, Epson or Google Glass, however, the Cortex augments reality in the same way that your smartphone does -- by using a camera and overlaying graphics atop the video feed it captures. In fact, the system actually uses an Android smartphone as its display.
The face of the prototype is actually a housing where you slide in a jumbo phone -- with a 6-inch, 1080p screen and a Snapdragon 800 -- that serves as both the display and the graphical brains of the thing. It's also got a camera stuck to the front of it. To counterbalance those bits, a power pack is situated around the rear of your skull. The prototype's version is tethered to an outlet, but company CEO Dhan Balachand assured us that the dev kit would pack a rechargeable battery that'll provide at least four hours of use.
The weight of the Cortex prototype is noticeable, but it didn't become uncomfortable during the five minutes we wore it -- we expect the dev model to be lighter.
As with the hardware itself, the software still has a ways to go, too. When you first slide the Cortex onto your head, it takes a few seconds to get adjusted as the headset calibrates its optics to suit your eyeballs. After some initial disorientation, we were looking at our empty hotel room and a few digital objects, and then noticed that the video feed was magnifying our view as compared to actual reality. Aside from taking some getting used to, it served to generally keep us aware that we were staring at a phone's screen instead of the real world.
That said, the shift from augmented to virtual reality is relatively seamless -- we stepped into a digital portal and suddenly the hotel room was a covered terrace overlooking a lake and some mountains. Graphical quality is what you'd expect when a mobile chip's providing the grunt: about as good as a PS2. And during our demo, there was significant flicker and chop to the animation. We were told that the system also works with PCs, in which case the graphics are much smoother. We didn't get to see such a setup.
Walking around a physical and digital space simultaneously was definitely an interesting experience while being tethered to a power outlet. But, we had helpful Sulon employees keeping the cord out of our way, and the headset itself has a warning system that beeps when you are reaching a physical boundary in the real world.
I played a zombie-shooting game, using the Razer Hydra to blast the undead as I ported from digital room to digital room (all the same size, of course), and found myself sitting still and turning in one place instead of traipsing around blasting walkers. While the digital world was mapped very closely to the real one, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was blindfolded, and so moved around with trepidation. Perhaps with more practice, I'd feel more comfortable. But, I feel safe saying that for the tech to catch on with the public, it'll have to be much more immersive. More accurately placed, smoother graphics might have provided me more confidence.
Bottom line? The hardware we wore was a hacked-together prototype, but warts and all, still managed to deliver a cool and somewhat immersive VR experience. It's still not wireless... yet, and we'd really like to see it with the new, faster spatial scanner that the company tells us will be in the dev kit -- as Balachand tells us it'll solve many of our graphical gripes. Still, what we saw is far from the holodeck enjoyed by the crew of the starship Enterprise, but there's potential in the Cortex. We'll be looking forward to finding out if it can fulfill it.
Nicole Lee contributed to this report.