In VR, anything can be anything. Your game controller can turn into a gun, an arm or a bubble-blowing space machine. So, what's the point of wielding a realistic-looking gun or ping-pong paddle in real life?
I'm not sure I have a good answer to that question. Nevertheless, HTC's Vive Tracker, a little trackable set of wireless pucks for VR if you already own an HTC Vive, aim to do exactly that.
Vive Tracker costs $99 (£100, AU$169) or it comes in a few US bundles with an accessory (a light gun recreation, or set of a tennis racket and a ping-pong paddle) and Steam game codes for $150.
There are also separately-sold $14.99 Rebuff Reality Trackstraps (roughly £11 and AU$20) that are like velcro leg/arm straps you can screw a Vive Tracker into. Keep in mind, these are extras: Vive itself is still required, plus a gaming PC. This isn't a cheap hobby.
I spent some time with all of the new Vive Tracker configurations and accessories... and had some fun and a lot of frustration along the way.
When it works, it's fun. Using the well-weighted ping-pong paddle with the VR ping-pong game Eleven: Table Tennis VR made me really feel like I was playing. Using the light gun blaster with the weird Duck Season felt a little more convincing.
But, you could also play these games with the existing Vive controllers already included in your original purchase, too.
What is a Vive Tracker, again?
Vive Tracker is a wide-ranging idea announced back in January 2017, but has only come to fruition recently with supported games. In current PC-connected VR hardware, you're usually limited to a pair of wireless controllers and a headset as your way of interacting with objects in the virtual world. What if more items in the real world could be tracked, so they could accurately show up in your virtual game space?
The Tracker is like the lopped-off top of an HTC Vive controller: it's weird, black and three-pronged. It charges up via Micro-USB and then can screw into other add-on accessories. Add it to the top of a light gun, and you have a trackable weapon. Screw it into a plastic tennis racket, and you have a VR tennis racket. Put them on velcro wrist bands and wear them on your arms or legs, and you can track your body a bit.
Sometimes awesome, but lacks haptics
Connecting the ping-pong paddle and playing ping-pong in VR sounds silly, but was surprisingly great and physics-accurate. But, I can't feel the ball's impact with the paddle. There aren't any haptics. Which means I feel like I'm playing ping-pong with a neurological disorder.
I was weirdly excited when I strapped both trackers to my feet and realized my shoes had suddenly become visible in VR. I had a blast trying Final Soccer, which turned my hands and feet into four trackable points. I was able to try goal kicks with my actual legs -- or, my feet. But again, no vibration or haptic feedback. I can see myself kicking, but can't feel it.
Turns out, I'm a terrible soccer player. But it was fun to actually kick the ball in the virtual world.
Dongles, Dongles, Dongles
The Vive Tracker (you can buy one or two) comes with its own USB cable and dongle that's needed to link to your PC. Which is... really annoying.
The cable needs to be snaked out of a spare USB port -- keep in mind, you're already using one USB port for the headset. Two trackers need two dongles. Setting up the tracker involves pairing it in Valve's SteamVR settings. But, I found that once a tracker paired, one of my two controllers would get kicked off. Keeping all three wireless devices paired at once took a few attempts.
Each game that's Tracker-supported handles setup in a different way. The Vive Tracker reviewer's guide -- something that consumers don't have access to -- recommended launching games with both controllers and a Vive Tracker paired, in some instances. Other times, I needed just one controller and a tracker. Games have to know to assign the main controls to the paddle, or the light gun or add feet tracking.
At some point, will more advanced cameras make these accessories obsolete?
Once headsets can truly track rooms and make out obstacles, or even track hand motions, then maybe tracker accessories and dongles may not be needed. The Vive Tracker suggests a future where many things could be linked into VR, all becoming part of your home holodeck.
In reality, it's a lot of plastic stuff that ends up collecting, dangling and juggling. Having two controllers and a headset (and the light-emitting wall boxes) is enough. Things like Vive Tracker and its extras, while sometimes fun, end up feeling like a step way too far.
But I wouldn't be surprised if other companies start offering up lots of other things like it.
This is a lot of extra VR crap
If you fear having a Big Box of Junk in your gaming room, then Vive Trackers are your worst nightmare. Suddenly I had paddles, guns, straps and extra controller bits (and charge cables) to look after. VR headsets and controllers are already clumsy and cluttery. This is clutter for your clutter. Memories of Rock Band drums, Guitar Hero guitars and Wii steering wheels came flooding back.
I want a perfect controller, not many swappable ones
What bugs me the most is what I said at the beginning: in VR, anything can be anything. Oculus' fantastic Touch controllers are standard game pads that can be motion-sensitive guns, swords or anything your game uses them for. HTC's Vive controllers lack the standard analog sticks and buttons to play more "normal" console games, and aren't as versatile at handling all needs. I'd prefer that those controllers get updated. Instead, Vive Trackers have arrived and feel like a half-step. They're not necessary. But they suggest the future might be full of similar ideas in VR. I love the idea of modularity.
But, right now, these trackers aren't essential, easy to set up, or all that easy to use. I'd skip them unless you're a die-hard Vive fan. Even in the small subset of owners of PC VR gear, the Vive Tracker feels like a niche within a niche.