Yesterday, Facebook revealed that it’s working on a standalone headset with inside-out tracking, which would mean that a user could jump into a full virtual reality experience with only the head-mounted display itself, without needing cumbersome cables attached to a big, expensive PC – and without base stations, too, to bounce IR signals off the headset and help it determine the user’s position in space.
Another company is doing exactly that, using an x86-based processor and a custom, in-house designed spacial processing unit built right into the headset. The company is Markham, Ontario-based Sulon, and their most recent hardware is the Sulon Q, an iteration of the Cortex VR headset tech I first tried at CES in 2015. The new design offers better visual fidelity, and more accurate inside-out tracking, letting developers blend real and virtual worlds with unprecedented accuracy. Plus, it can track in effectively any environment, inside and out, because it uses light in the visual spectrum instead of IR, which is difficult to track outdoors.
“Inside-out is one of the holy grails to perfect, and to make sure that it’s cross environment, that it can work in any ambient lighting conditions and track robustly in pretty much any environment, allowing it to scale,” explained Sulon CEO Dhan Balachand. “So now if you’re going to buy a house, you can actually see the architectural model on your lot, in full scale, and you can actually walk in, from outdoors and change the interior decorating. You can look out through the window of your house and actually see your backyard.”
Why does any of this matter? Mainly because no one else has demonstrated an ability to do everything Sulon Q does in a single package yet – and that includes industry heavyweights like Oculus/Facebook, and like Intel. Facebook’s new Santa Cruz prototype does standalone, inside-out tracking, but demos still haven’t shown any seamless bleeding of real and virtual worlds. Sulon, in contrast, a tiny startup based in the outskirts of Toronto, actually showed me (and others) this technology working with a live demo, on headset hardware that’s nearly production-ready completely wire-free.
The Sulon Q headset has built-in cameras that scan the room and feed the data into Sulon’s in-house designed spatial processing unit, which accurately maps the area and renders it as video on the headset’s display. The video is extremely low latency, and fluid, powered by a liquid-cooled AMD processor with Radeon graphics alongside that in-house SPU. It’s surprisingly lightweight, too, given how much power it packs.
The demo I experienced was in interactive story book called Magic Beans based on Jack and the Beanstalk, where a giant smashes a whole through the ceiling of your environment (the actual ceiling, since you’re seeing the VR video feed) and removes you, leaving you suspended high above with a view of the house below. You can actually see through the whole and see the room you were just in faithfully represented in miniature, which is pretty incredible.
But what might be most impressive is that it’s capable of running full Windows 10, which is not even something the current iteration of the Microsoft Hololens can do. This is one of the areas where Balachand becomes most animated (he always seems genuinely excited whenever discussing the core tech behind Sulon, to be fair) when talking about the project.
This opens the door for what Dhan calls “spacial computing,” where you’re able to use a Sulon Q to work with your regular Windows 10 desktop, using a keyboard and mouse which you can see thanks to the Q’s digital environment re-creation. The video demo of this is similar to the virtual desktop applications you can use with something like Vive, but again, the only hardware required is the Sulon Q itself, and you can move windows around, attaching them to various points in your real physical space and expanding them as necessary. Users will be able to co-inhabit these kinds of virtual computing environments in the future, Dhan says, and seamlessly work together in a shared, real space that blends both of their own environments, or in a completed simulated one, depending on their needs.
It’s clear from Facebook’s announcement this week at Oculus Connect 3 that many companies are hard at work trying to achieve the same thing that Dhan and his small team have managed working as an independent startup in Canada, but what’s impressive is that Sulon has a functioning demo people can experience right now, and that it’s built on a lot of core tech the company has created by itself. They claim to be the only ones who have built an end-to-end solution that can do inside-out spatial tracking with an x86 platform, and based on what others have revealed publicly, that seems to be true.
There’s still no definite timeframe for shipping for the Sulon Q, however, though it should be coming “soon” according to the company itself. Now that Facebook has made it evident that this is where it would like to go with Oculus, the pressure’s on to deliver – but regardless, Sulon’s small team has shown that it can play with some of the largest, most well-funded companies in the world based on the strength of their engineering expertise alone.