On its own, the HTC Vive Tracker isn't very impressive-looking — it's just a black puck with the Vive logo in the middle. But it's the reason why HTC's Vive CES booth is full of weird, whimsical hardware this year. The puck adds instant motion control to any object, and while most developers are just starting to get their hands on it, a few HTC partners developed demos for CES. Some of these are ridiculously fun. Others still need some work. And one of them could probably kill somebody.
Valve already opened the Vive to third-party motion controllers last year, so the HTC Tracker is meant to be an additional, more plug-and-play option. Its most theoretically interesting applications involve pulling everyday objects — not specially designed peripherals — into VR. Instead of buying a special peripheral to play virtual baseball, for instance, you could buy the puck and attach it to an ordinary bat. In fact, that's exactly what happens in one of the best demos.
The Vive baseball simulator can't see the entirety of your bat, but it can extrapolate motion from the puck screwed to its hilt. So as you swing in real life, you also swing a virtual bat that's been manually set to the right size. I didn't do this very well — I got a handful of solid hits, a lot of fouls, and too many strikes to count. While I can't rule out calibration issues, I'm assuming this is because I'm just bad at baseball. Either way, though, it was a lot more satisfying than swinging a remote.
HTC virtual reality SVP Rikard Steiber says ordinary VR users might want to buy standalone trackers to play games with equipment they already own. Selfie Tennis, for example, could be augmented with an actual tennis racket. But introducing a random assortment of hardware into games could present unforeseen problems. And perhaps more importantly, swinging around real sporting equipment blind could be a recipe for disaster. I've hit furniture hard enough to draw blood playing Selfie Tennis, and I can't count the number of people I've bumped into or nearly punched when they wandered across my space. I don't even want to know what I could do to my office (or my coworkers) with a baseball bat.
This is exactly why the baseball trainer’s developers emphasized that their simulator is for seasoned players in a controlled environment, not the average user's home. And overall, the best demos seem like a good fit for workplaces or arcades. On the industrial side, a firefighter training program uses the tracker as the nozzle of a realistic hose, complete with a wheel that simulates the tug of water pressure. Players grab the hose and put on a fire coat with heating elements, which turn on as the fire spreads. The intensity is apparently randomized, so I put out the first one within seconds, while the second was some kind of Centralia-esque eternal flame that the attendant told me to give up on after several minutes — although maybe he was just being nice. The whole simulation is short and rough, but fascinating.
On the gaming side, you’ve got complex toy guns with simulated kickback, and two sets of VR gloves: Manus VR, which we’ve written about before, and the Noitom Hi5. I think VR gloves have inherent, fatal flaws as general-purpose controllers, and I’m not sure either setup changed my mind. Manus is showing off a very simple demo that doesn’t involve any interaction with the world, although the gloves are certainly capable of more. Noitom has a nice little environment similar to Oculus’ Toybox demo, but all the problems I wrote about recently are still there: gloves are just uncomfortable, and they don’t have enough relative advantages to make up for it.
The Vive Tracker is a fascinating way to bring all the weird peripherals we’ve seen over the past several years into a major ecosystem. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see more experiences for them, because they still require designing for a niche kind of interaction. But HTC’s appeal to arcades and businesses opens up a path beyond trying to sell to individual consumers — and one that just might make them worth creating.