A computer rendering of the final version of the Cortex virtual-reality headset. Credit: Sulon Technologies
SAN FRANCISCO — One minute you're looking at the familiar wall of your living room. But turn your head, and there's a zombie bearing down on you.
That's just one of the scenarios made possible by the Cortex, a headset developed by Sulon Technologies of Richmond Hill, Ontario, that debuted this week at the Game Developers Conference here in San Francisco.
The device consists of a headband with a screen over the eyes and a sensor on top. Using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and ultrasound waves, the scanner maps out the room you're in and creates virtual targets, enemies and even scenery, based on the constraints of your physical environment.
We went hands-on — or rather head-on — with the Cortex at the Game Developer Conference, where we played a demo consisting of three levels.
Our fearless reporter tries out a prototype of the Cortex virtual-reality headset.
The first was so-called "augmented reality," in which the Cortex showed us the actual room we were in, with virtual targets superimposed. We shot the targets using what looked like futuristic guns, which were really a pair of Razer Hydra controllers that communicated with the Cortex via magnetic scanners.
In the second level, the Cortex transformed the room's walls into a futuristic lighthouse environment. As we moved around the room, or even bent down and stood up, the images adjusted themselves to match our new perspective.
The experience was both thrilling and disorienting — the latter, in part, because of a noticeable delay in this adjustment. However, Sulon assured us that this issue was being addressed and would be fixed in the final build.
In the demo's final level, zombies appeared in the room. We had to turn our head to find them, using the Razer Hydra controllers to target and shoot them as they chased us around the space. Seeing an apparently life-sized zombie stumble toward us in virtual reality was quite a different experience from fighting them on a TV or a computer screen.
The Cortex is similar in many ways to the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, the device, that in many ways, kicked off the video game industry's current fascination with virtual reality. Sulon CEO Dhan Balachand said the Cortex is unique because it's designed to be worn while walking and running through a space, not just sitting or standing.
Balachand said the Cortex doesn't simply scan the room the wearer happens to be in, but can also be used to scan larger areas, such as a house. The Cortex can then remember that map and create games that have you walking or running through that entire space, he said.
Because the Cortex knows where you are in relation to the room's walls, and can create whole new images based on that environment, Balachar said that the Cortex can also be used to give players the illusion of being in a larger space than they really are — a possibility he compared to the holodeck on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
"So within the small space, you can have miles and miles and miles of gameplay, because the system redirects [you] ... to keep you away from the physical boundaries, allowing you to walk around in circles, but visually you're walking straight for miles," he said.
Sulon is currently in talks with developers to create games for the Cortex platform. The team plans to ship developer kits for $499 by the end of 2014.