Hands-On: HTC Vive Tracker and accessories

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in VR, but every time I boot up the Vive or the Oculus I still get a kick out of the photorealistic controllers that are rendered in real time in front of me. Say what you want about the comfort level of these VR controllers, they’re both pretty remarkable pieces of tech.

But like any console, third party controllers are right behind any official release. For many of us, the concept of third party controllers means being relegated to a Mad Catz (RIP) knockoff N64 controller while your older sister kills you in Goldeneye. Though those defeats still sting, third party controller options have come a long way since then.

Tracking it down

Enter the Vive Tracker. It’s essentially a controller without any of the buttons; a small, puck-like attachment that contains at the tracking and motions sensing technology of the Vive Controller. It’s all the sweet tech packed into an easy attachable apparatus, and this means just about anything you attach the tracker to can be used as a controller.

It’s very similar to the original Wii, in that you could buy all sorts of strange knick knacks that would fit around the Wii-mote (still haven’t forgiven Nintendo for that name). Remember those little plastic wheels for Mario Kart Wii, or the tiny tennis rackets for Wii Sports? It’s essentially the same concept, though there’s no question the tech in the Tracker is significantly more substantial.

We had the opportunity to play with a few of these different peripherals; the Hyperkin Hyper Blaster set, the Racket Sports set, and two Rebuff Reality trackstraps for full body VR tracking. We put the Vive Tracker through its paces, and developed a great sense of what these little guys are capable of.

You can pre-order the HTC Vive Tracker now, and it will be available on Newegg soon.

Set up

First things first, we had to charge the Vive Trackers. Luckily, they come with a 2.4 GHz dongle, a micro USB cable, a power adapter, and a dongle cradle.

You can charge the tracker fairly quickly, and it lasts for about four hours on a single, full charge. Steam VR quickly picked up the Tracker when it was plugged in, but getting it to work without being wired requires a little more effort. First, you need to make sure the dongle is plugged in. You can do this with direct USB, but I had more luck with the cradle, as it allowed me to pull it away from the back of the computer and more in-line with our Vive setup. After that, you have to manually pair the tracker, as if you were adding a new controller.

This is a little confusing, but what’s more confusing is that you have to do this every time you want to switch between using two controllers or one controller and the tracker. This too would be ok, except many games that support the tracker force you to start with two controllers, then turn one off, right click on the tracker, pair it again, and only then can you continue with the tracker. If that sounds confusing, it is, and it’s a bit of a pain too.

Oh, and you’ll probably need to update the Tracker’s firmware as well.

That being said, the Tracker (and the games that support it) are still very much in their early days, and these kinds of kinks will no doubt be ironed out with hardware and software updates. I’m hoping once the Tracker is more ubiquitous the inconvenience of getting it to work will be diminished.

Once it’s up and running though, I had no issues with it whatsoever. The connection was stable throughout my testing, and just like the controllers, I had no technical problems with these little guys once I got them working.

Hunting some duck

The first peripheral I tested was the Hyperkin Hyperblaster. This little light gun is clearly inspired by the aesthetic of the NES Zapper, though it does have a slightly more modern design.

You attach the tracker to the top, with a little wheel that allows you to screw it on, and you can use the buttons on the gun because of the six data transfer contact points.

The typical HTC Vive controller buttons are scattered across the Blaster, and are for the most part pretty easy to access, though the two on the hand grip are unfortunately placed. It’s FAR too easy to accidentally press them when pulling the trigger, and depending on the software you’re using, this can cause problems. Also, when the tracker is attached, the iron sights that are on the Blaster purely for decoration block the charging port, meaning every time you want to charge it you have to remove the tracker from the Blaster. It’s a baffling design decision, and a very inconvenient one.  

Other than that though the Blaster is fun to use. The trigger pull feels nice, and the weight is right, event with the tracker awkwardly attached on the top.

I tested it with Duck Season, which like the Blaster itself, is a very self aware throwback to Duck Hunt on the original NES. The game is a little creepy, with a man in a dog costume and a strange meta tale about a child being sucked into a Duck Hunt-like game. It’s a strange title, but the Tracker on the blaster worked well, and the shape of the gun and the trigger did add some immersion.

Odd button placement aside, the Hyperkin Tracker gets the job done. I could see how it would enhance shooting games like Arizona Sunshine by adding a bit more immersion, though I didn't have any trouble playing that game using the standard Vive controller.

Making a racket

Next up were the two rackets; one for table tennis, and one for tennis tennis, which are essentially plastic rackets with a place to screw on the Tracker. There are no buttons (obviously), so the price tag might be a bit high at $80. I can’t see any reason you couldn’t attach the Tracker to an actual ping pong paddle with some clever drilling.

Still though, they are built very well, with the plastic providing a stability that does accurately emulate a tennis/ping pong racket. I haven’t played a lot of tennis, but I’ve played a lot of table tennis, and there is something pretty remarkable about how accurately it’s represented in VR.

I tested the two rackets with Virtual Sports. Not exactly the most original name, but the simple tennis and ping pong matches were engaging, and again, the tracker performed beautifully. The physics were pretty much spot on, with only a few subtleties like the ball spin feeling a bit off.

If you’re in the market for a VR racket than these will work great, but between the Tracker and the rackets, I believe you could buy an actual ping pong table.

Nobody ever said VR was cheap.

Strap me in

Next up, it was time to test out the….foot straps.

It’s essentially a simple elastic strap with a tripod mount coming out of the material for the Tracker. You wrap it around your foot, and then you can track your feet, the same way the controller tracks your hands.

In fact, the game I tested it with, Final Soccer, had a few options for body tracking, and the first was to simply tape a controller to your foot. A low-tech solution for a high-tech problem.

The strap worked great. It’s extremely durable, which is good considering it’s going underneath your feet. There’s no question that I looked very much the fool waving around my hands and feet trying to block goals, but VR has never been about looking cool.

The point is, it worked. The tracker captured every moment of my feet, and I could absolutely see how this technology, once it’s streamlined a bit, will only further add to the full body immersion that is VR’s ultimate goal.

Stay on track

Testing these trackers was fascinating, for a few reasons.

The first, as I mentioned before, was the marriage of remarkable technology in the form of these trackers and the low-tech fashion in which is it implemented. The gun is basically a plastic toy with some fancy wiring. The rackets are just straight up plastic (albeit high quality plastic) and the straps are simple elastic bands with a tripod head in them. It’s simple, almost comically so...and yet it all works.

My biggest hurdle was getting the Trackers to sync, but I believe that will be addressed with future updates. Once everything was attached and up and running, there’s no doubt the Trackers do exactly what they are supposed to.

You might look silly swinging a big plastic tennis racket, or tying straps to your feet, but when you’re in the game, in front of the cheering crowd, or your tennis opponent under a digital blue sky, it’s easy to not care about impressing people.

Quite simply, the trackers do add immersion, and at the end of the day, that what VR is all about. I’m looking forward to seeing how developers continue to take advantage of these powerful little Trackers going forward.