The HTC Vive Tracker is weird. It’s a black puck with tiny feet, and looks like the kind of thing you’d use to prop up furniture. What it does is even stranger — it uses dark sorcery to bring physical objects into virtual reality. Like that machine from Tron. The one that ate Jeff Bridges.
These things won’t devour you and condemn you to live in a digital hell for decades, don’t worry. To bring an object into VR, you just screw a Vive Tracker on to specially designed plastic appendage — like a tennis racket, ping pong paddle, or plastic gun — and the object joins you in the virtual realms. Some enterprising developers have even managed to create VR-compatible chairs with the Vive Tracker. On the surface, it’s a very interesting device, but it gets complicated.
A game of dongles
To use the Vive Tracker, you’re going to have to go through a very hit-and-miss setup process to teach your VR setup to see the pucks. It’s quick and easy, which is good, since you’ll probably have to do it a few times at first, and then again, each time you use your VR rig.
First, you’ll plug in the dongle that came with the Vive Tracker into an open USB port on your PC. Then, make sure your HTC Vive is on and ready, with Steam VR or Viveport open. Navigate to the Devices menu, then click add a new device. You’ll need to attach the Tracker to whichever controller you’re going to use with it — a tennis racket, ping pong paddle, toy gun, or whatever else you paid $100 for.
Yeah, these plastic shells start at $100, almost across the board.
Setting up the Vive Tracker is a very hit-and-miss process.
Anyway, once it’s attached to its expensive plastic shell, you hold it up to your lighthouse sensors like you’re offering a sacrifice to a tiny square god. Then, press and hold the Vive logo and hope your offering was accepted. If not, try again. And again. And again.
We had plenty of issues connecting during initial setup. When you first plug in your Vive headset, you’re greeted with a thorough setup tutorial that walks you through every aspect of the process. The Vive Tracker, on the other hand, gives you a tiny paper booklet to leaf through.
Too little for too much
Once you have the Vive Tracker up and running, it’s easy enough to use. If you attached it to one of the tennis racket peripherals and fired up a compatible game, you’ll now see the tennis racket rendered perfectly in VR. That’s the magic of the Vive Tracker. It’s designed to take very basic input from the peripheral it’s attached to — it basically just tells the Vive system what its dimensions are — and the tracker itself relays that information to your lighthouse sensors, which track the object in real time.
Essentially, the Vive system says “Hey Tracker, I see you,” to which the Tracker replies, “Hey Vive, I’m attached to a tennis racket, and it looks like this.” It’s an important distinction, because it means the Tracker doesn’t do much on its own. You can throw it onto any object and expect it to work.
While the Vive Tracker lets you see specific objects in the virtual world, it also has limitations. The longer you spend with the Vive Tracker, the more you’ll come to appreciate the design and functionality of the original Vive Touch Controllers.
When you use the Touch Controllers to interact with the world you feel them vibrate, creating the illusion that you’re interacting with a virtual object. The Tracker doesn’t have native haptic feedback, though, so you’ll end up missing that most of the time. Some attachments do have their own haptic feedback, like the Hyperblaster — a $100 Tracker-compatible toy gun. Most don’t. That makes us question whether the Tracker counts as an upgrade. Sure, the Tracker-compatible tennis racket looks more like a real one, but it doesn’t feel more realistic in the heat of the moment. Without haptics, the impact of hitting the ball isn’t simulated. It feels more like you’re swinging a piece of plastic in empty space.
Which, of course, is exactly what you’re doing.
Who the Tracker is for?
While the Vive Tracker is a peripheral you can buy for your HTC Vive system (which HTC is selling in bundles with the HTC Vive headset) it’s not actually for everyday people. That’s a clever bit of marketing jiu jitsu.
Head to the Vive Tracker’s website, and it’s clearly a device HTC would like you, the home user, to buy. Yet it’s designed primarily as a tool allowing VR developers to cut down on how long it takes to implement VR accessories of their own. Rather than figuring out their own tracking schema, developers can just invest in the Vive Tracker, and create an accessory that attaches to it.
The longer you spend with the Vive Tracker, the more you’ll come to appreciate the Vive’ Touch Controllers.
HTC wants you to have a Vive Tracker on hand for these extra accessories, so you can just swap out the expensive part of the system — the puck — and stay invested, exclusively, in their ecosystem.
HTC even said as much during Unity’s Vision AR/VR Summit earlier this year, detailing how the Tracker is good for developers by cutting down iteration time, and good for consumers because it saves them money — and has the fortunate side-effect of locking them into the HTC ecosystem.
In short, the Vive Tracker is a shackle HTC wants to use to tie your money up in their hardware. Like Hotel California, but instead of a haunting and lovely allegory you can never leave, it’s just a box of plastic junk you wasted money on. Now might be a good time to take a look at the sunk costs fallacy, and brush up on how escalation of commitment works. The Vive Tracker is a prime example how consumer electronics manufacturers use both to trick us into buying things we don’t need.
Here’s the thing
The HTC Vive Tracker lets you bring real world objects into VR, and use them in conjunction with the HTC Touch Controller, but the tracker and its accessory shells are less capable and less immersive than the Touch Controllers that shipped with your Vive headset. Not to mention you’ll be paying $100 for just the Tracker, or $150 for the Tracker and an accessory — or $80 for literally a plastic tennis racket and a plastic ping pong paddle.
It’s just not a good investment. The Touch Controllers work better, offer a more immersive experience. Plus, and you don’t have to worry if they’re compatible with one game or another. The appeal of the Vive Tracker is easy to see, but at its current pricing, and without haptics, it doesn’t make sense. It promises a more immersive experience, but delivers little more than a novelty you’ll use a few times, throw into a drawer, and forget.