Bending Reality: Dhan Balachand’s Headset Will Take You Anywhere

When Dhan Balachand sat down with journalist Mary Bitti, he candidly discussed his inspiration for launching Sulon Technologies and the endless possibilities of its signature product, the Cortex. But it became clear that there was a lot he couldn’t talk about; marketing plans, launch dates, and the latest product specs remain shrouded in secrecy. But this is no surprise. As an emerging innovation company rivalling giants like Google, Sulon’s mystery is a tactic of competitive survival. And Balachand’s Cortex isn’t just next-level technology, it’s a game-changer.

Picture this: you’re in your office in Markham on the phone with a client in Boston, but you’re both virtually telepresent on the beaches of Waikiki, walking and talking through your next project. Or, you’re designing a new consumer product, but before any physical prototype has been built, you’re troubleshooting and enhancing the product by manipulating a lifelike virtual version floating in front of you. Or maybe you’re enjoying some downtime, but rather than staring at a screen and manipulating a controller, the zombie apocalypse is happening in your living room.

Thanks to Sulon Technologies and its soon-to-be released signature product, the Cortex, you will be able to do all of the above and more. The spatially aware headset’s patented intellectual property combines augmented and virtual reality technologies that can dynamically map any environment and transform it into a virtual open world that can be manipulated to suit the user’s purpose. “It’s always mapping your environment and redirecting your visual path by making you walk in different patterns. This is called redirected walking and only our system can do it,” says Dhan Balachand, founder and CEO of Sulon Technologies.

Doing what’s never been done before is at the core of Sulon Technologies’ approach to innovation. “We don’t want to build something that’s never been built before. We want to build something brand new,” says Balachand. “There is nothing to compare the Cortex to. We built what many people said was 400 years away. We built the impossible. It’s new, disruptive, and we want it in every person’s home around the world.”

The Cortex is the result of a clear philosophy and objective: to enhance the human experience. For Balachand, a lifelong inventor with a limitless imagination, that means making things better for people by solving pain points or creating new ways to enjoy life. “The world is in a new technological era and the possibilities for improvement are endless. Augmented and virtual reality technology are the next game changers, just as computers and mobile technology were before. With Sulon Technologies, I want to tailor products and innovations that are useful, and solve for consumer needs and wants. The technologies we’ve incorporated in the Cortex are scalable and can be used in a wide range of applications across industries.”

After graduating from the University of Ottawa with a degree in electrical engineering, Balachand initially imagined he would develop technology to change, better, or enhance procedures to help solve problems much faster in the field of medicine. Instead, he brought that same focus to a high-tech renewable energy startup in Toronto. He joined as engineer number five and helped create and commercialize several technologies for the renewable energy space. “That’s where I got my training in how to take something from imagination to a practical, useful, and different consumer product.”

Balachand is quick to point out that he is a person who gets bored easily. Having moved up the ranks from engineer number five to director of engineering, he decided he could do more to better humanity. It wasn’t long before daydreams about what it would be like to live in the worlds depicted in sci-fi and fantasy movies led to the idea of creating a spatially aware computing platform that could help users save lives, improve productivity, and live movie and gaming moments.

In 2012, with guidance and early funding from Markham business accelerator ventureLAB, he incorporated Sulon Technologies and made the move into the consumer electronics space to help people live surreal experiences. “I became obsessive about trying to create a dynamic holodeck, something that could not only work in the real world but transform people’s lives.” The more people told him it couldn’t be done, the more determined he became.

His efforts are already being recognized. The Cortex was awarded Top Heads-Up Display at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show by Tom’s Guide. While the gaming opportunities have been quickly appreciated and will be used to kickstart the Cortex’s global launch in late 2015/early 2016, Balachand’s vision for the Cortex extends beyond the gaming industry. “This can be used to train soldiers, facilitate remote medical diagnoses and surgeries, help consumers visualize large purchases before making them. Engineers can use it to virtualize the engines they are designing on their 2-D screens. Now, instead of spending millions of dollars to manufacture and then finding issues, you can visualize the engine block in true scale, walk alongside it, and interact with it as if it was a real part. The only thing the system can’t give you is the taste, smell, and touch.”

In fact, Balachand and his team are already using the Cortex for their own engineering purposes. Using the Cortex they designed eight months ago, Sulon is virtually designing the version of the Cortex they are preparing to launch. This next-generation Cortex is floating in the middle of their workspace as they make sure all the parts fit. The team can even virtually wear it.

Balachand also sees the potential for a dedicated application for firefighters, with the Cortex retrofitted onto helmets, providing a real-time map of the physical space they will be entering so they know exactly what to expect. “The Cortex sees up to 30 metres around you. As the data is collected, the firefighter’s position is wirelessly transmitted to colleagues outside so they can see what’s happening and offer guidance,” says Balachand. “Microphones will detect noise, leading firefighters to people who may be trapped.”

Perhaps the biggest impact will come in the education space. Cortex-wearing students could experience the classroom and a shared learning environment without being physically present. A built-in audio system would further social learning by allowing students to communicate with each other. Balachand envisions school gymnasiums transformed into virtual zoos, museums, or time machines taking students to the dinosaur age. “The Cortex means we can create the Magic School Bus experience for real. The possibilities are endless. The goal in the next five years is to make the Cortex a mainstream product. We want it to become an everyday item for everyone on the planet.”

If the technology delivers on the potential Balachand describes, then the Cortex may in fact become as ubiquitous and essential to everyday living and working as smartphones and tablets are today. The product won’t be released until 2016, but when it does, consumers will determine whether or not it is the next must-h

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