HTC's $100 Vive Tracker, coming March 27, allows crazy DIY VR accessories

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The Vive Tracker, sitting on top of the rifle accessory.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Vive is the most free-range VR experience on the market, but it could get a lot more accessory-connected soon. HTC announced the Vive Tracker is coming to developers March 27 for $100 (£99 UK; equivalent to AU$138).

The Vive Trackers are extra wireless accessories that can turn nearly anything into a VR-trackable object. Baseball bats, rifles, gloves, cameras: imagine one of the Vive's wireless controller heads lopped off and stuck onto something, and you have, in a sense, what the Tracker is.

What this means, based on my time with Vive Tracker, is a lot of crazy new ways to play with real things in VR. I got to try the Vive Tracker with a handful of early developer-built VR experiences at CES in January. It was a blast.

The VR of things

I was given a baseball bat, and a VR headset was slipped over my face. Not a great combo for me, someone who can't hit a real baseball with any accuracy at all. But it's the demo I remember most, among all my VR experiences at CES in Las Vegas this year... because it felt real.

Reality, paradoxically, is something VR could still use more of. It's not very aware of surroundings, although inside-out tracking and mixed-reality cameras might help. Accessories might help, too. And there could be a lot of accessories coming very soon, if the Vive Tracker is any indication. It's one of several extensions to HTC's Vive VR platform coming this year, along with a wireless VR adapter and a new headstrap and headphone design.

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I am terrible at baseball.

Josh Miller/CNET

Trinity VR's baseball sim trainer really used a wooden baseball bat, but attached to one end was a Vive Tracker. My swings were pitted against realistic major-league pitchers. I was so bad, it was embarrassing. But the stat-driven engine is designed for professional training. The Vive Tracker sat innocuously at the end, a wireless dongle of sorts that looks like the lopped-off end of a Vive wireless VR controller. And that's exactly what it is. It turns anything into a wireless VR accessory.

What things, exactly? In my demos, I tried a baseball bat. A camera. A fireman's hose. A rifle. Basically, whatever developers want. If VR is all about putting you in another space, then the Vive Tracker is about finding physical objects to take with you.

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VR gloves, with Vive Trackers attached.

Josh Miller/CNET

HTC also demonstrated the Tracker attached to a pair of motion-sensitive Noitom gloves. Wearing them made my hands feel like skeletal extensions of my virtual self, and tracked pretty well in the brief demo I tried.

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I can't control this hose!

Josh Miller/CNET

In another VR experience, I tried an educational fire-safety and firefighter training demo called FLAIM Trainer, with a force-feedback hose that simulated what actual water pressure feels like while fighting fires. I also wore a realistically heavy firefighter's uniform that heated up until I was sweating, but it was the tracker-enabled hose I was focused on.

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The Vive Tracker, once again, sitting on top of a gun accessory.

Josh Miller/CNET

In another demo, I wielded a Tracker-connected wireless rifle with force feedback, facing waves of attackers while wearing a wireless VR headset.

Standard game accessories could turn into a Vive VR-recognized one. This could allow third-party accessory makers to suddenly sell all sorts of items that could potentially turn into VR gear, provided game or app support existed.

The third-party accessory market for VR could end up skyrocketing, ending up in buckets of strange junk you'll dump in your closet and forget about. Or, maybe, a few useful tools could emerge. What HTC's Vive Tracker really does that's superclever is it makes a single item that can be applied to other items in a seemingly easy, modular way.

Maybe we'll have just a couple of strange accessories emerge. Or, this could be the eruption of bizarre VR gear. PlayStation has its upcoming PSVR Aim rifle controller. Adult entertainment is experimenting with smell. What will be next?

(Originally published January 19, 2017. Updated February 27, 2017 with added price and availability announcements from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Hands-on experiences were at CES in Las Vegas in January.)

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HTC Vive Tracker

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