The virtual reality space is pretty much Oculus Rift, and then everyone else. Even Sony’s Morpheus VR project was conspicuously absent from CES 2015, but one startup stood up and made sure that there was more to VR at the event than just the excellent Crescent Bay demo: Sulon Technologies were showing off an early prototype of their Sulon Cortex, a headset that merges augmented reality and virtual reality for an experience like no other.
Sulon launched its Cortex Developer Kit pre-order program back in March of 2014, but now it’s gearing up to actually ship the first hardware kits to its early partners. They were at CES with a near-final version of said hardware, and despite some hiccups they encountered because of the massive amount of RF interference generated by a dense, wireless-happy tech show with 200,000 attendants, their wireless hardware still lest us impressed.
Myself and fellow TechCrunch writer Kyle Russell tried the Cortex out on the final day of CES, running through two demos. The first was an engineering demonstration, with a 3D car engine that a user can manipulate with their hands, exploding it apart to see each individual piece, or putting it back together for a look at the finished product. It’s an example of what Sulon thinks could be possible for interactive engineering work done remotely, with two or more Cortex-wearing engineers working together on the same product as if they were in the same room.
Sulon’s tech incorporates hand tracking on the headset itself, identifying your finger tips via a special IR camera on the front that works similar to Microsoft’s Kinect. In the engineering demo, that let you use two features (one to explode the engine and one to reassemble it). Despite some visual stutter, which the company said had a lot to do with the RF interference, it was still a promising early look at interactive tech that could indeed be useful for distributed teamwork in the real world.
The second demo we saw was a game, built in-house by Sulon’s engineering team, which had you face off against a hydra in a dungeon-style environment on a platform surrounded by lava. This let Sulon highlight the benefits of its AR/VR hybrid approach, since you initially see yourself surrounded by your actual surroundings via a live feed from the Cortex camera, and then step through a portal into a fully virtual environment. Sulon CEO Dhan Balachandreswaran sees more fluidity between AR and VR environments in the future, including virtual objects that track and respect the boundaries of the real world completely.
Sulon isn’t claiming it’s close to a consumer launch, and the experience was far from the level of refinement you get on recent versions of the Oculus Rift, but Kyle pointed out one key thing after out demo: The Hydra demo was the first time he’d had genuine fun playing an actual, traditionally styled game on a VR platform. I felt the same, and that could bode very well for Sulon’s future success.