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HTC Vive Tracker: Our first take

Digging into a VR toy box of guns, bats and (yup) hoses with HTC's Vive Tracker

Though HTC acolytes didn’t get a second-generation Vive headset at CES 2017 as they hoped, VR fans still have something to look forward to this year. Vive Trackers, announced on Wednesday, will allow game and hardware developers to turn real-life props into virtual weapons, from guns to swords, bats, and even a hose. A small black disc, roughly the size of the donut shape on a Vive controller, allows connected objects to be detected by the Vive’s lighthouse sensors and visualized in-game.

That may not sound like a big deal, but it effectively turns the Vive into a giant toy box. Anyone with the ingenuity and technical knowhow could make any physical object into the experience, lifting another layer of abstraction from the VR experience. You are actually swinging that sword, or painting with that brush. And as we found out, that makes a big difference.

Anything is possible

We saw and used a variety of peripherals already in development by third-parties, including gloves, a baseball bat, a camera, and multiple guns.

With the Vive tracker out there, developers can get that much closer to creating virtual worlds.

It may be a gaming cliché, but a giant assault rifle proved to be one of the most interesting toys. We played ROM: Extraction, a VR shooting gallery style game that’s currently available on the Vive, using the VR-15, a custom rifle controller made by commercial VR producer VRsenal.

While the experience was relatively simple — you simply shoot robots until the level ends or they overwhelm you — the ability to point and shoot, aim “down sights,” and whip the gun around as you cover your back all make you feel like you’re really shooting. The gun had a custom control scheme with a trigger and two clickable analog sticks on each side of its front grip. In Extraction, pulling a stick would launch a smart bomb that would find and destroy an enemy, and pressing down on the stick would slow down time. Since it’s made for the standard Vive controller, Extraction doesn’t take advantage of the full range of inputs, but a game tailor-made for it could add more complex inputs than the Vive controller, or new kinds of inputs.

Though the VR-15 itself is a commercial product — VRsenal told us the controller was “very expensive” and would not be sold to consumers — it uses the same tracker as the controllers we’ll be able to bring home. And don’t worry, there are at least two consumer-grade VR guns on the way.

It isn’t all fun and games

After target practice, we tried Flaim, a training simulation for firemen made by the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation at Deakin University in Australia. The premise is simple: Use the nozzle of a fire hose to (try) to extinguish a fire. Using a lever on the top of nozzle, you could adjust the power of the spray while directing it with great accuracy, and another dial on the nozzle shifted the spray between wide and concentrated.

It didn’t end there. A hose attached to the nozzle would tighten and pull you back as you increased the pressure, and the haptic fireman’s jacket we donned simulated the heat of the fire. Though these elements were untracked, they greatly bolstered the simulation. Without the tracker and the nozzle, however, you wouldn’t have felt like you were actually fighting a fire. You certainly wouldn’t be able to consider it a learning experience.

Nothing is certain

In general, HTC’s Vive Trackers performed consistently with no noticeable latency regardless of what controller it was connected to. On a technical level, it seems that a well-made tracker-based peripheral will work exactly as well as HTC’s own Vive controllers.

Of course, that is all contingent on developers building and designing software for those controllers. Simply strapping a “puck,” as a couple developers called it, to an object makes it trackable, but not necessarily functional. Luckily, the Vive ecosystem is nothing if not wide-reaching and experimental.

Still, it’s hard to say exactly how the tracker will fare, particularly among gamers, who are notoriously fickle when it comes to supporting games made for specific controllers and accessories. The strength of Vive’s software offerings, its breadth, could translate to a mess of expensive, rarely supported props.

For now, though, the possibilities that the Vive tracker offers outweigh the potential for failure. With the Vive tracker out there, developers can get that much closer to creating virtual worlds, the kind where we perform virtually, rather than simply play.

The Vive tracker will be available in the second quarter of 2017.

Highs

  • Opens the door for new VR experiences
  • Controllers work just as well as the Vive
  • Easy to install and remove

Lows

  • Doesn’t do anything without developer support
  • Many controllers may dilute the market