As I’ve been reminded many times this week, we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of PC virtual reality, and both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are shaking things up to celebrate. The Rift got a $200 price cut, the Vive got a brand-new financing plan.
But HTC has much bigger changes on the horizon. One of my favorite aspects of the Vive has been HTC’s willingness to experiment with the hardware, post release. The Rift and Oculus’s optional Touch controllers have remained essentially the same since 2015.
The Vive, though? First came a new cable, which replaced the launch version's heavy tether with a slimmer 3-in-1 cable that resembled the consumer Rift. And in the future, two further additions are coming to the Vive ecosystem: the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap and the Vive Tracker.
Deluxe is right
HTC announced the Deluxe Audio Strap and the Tracker at CES, and even stuck a price on the pair earlier this week. They’re $99 each, with the strap arriving in May and the consumer Tracker towards the end of the year.
I got my first chance to go hands-on with the pair this week at the Game Developers Conference. And while the Tracker is arguably the bigger news, at least in terms of raw potential, it’s the Deluxe Audio Strap I’m most excited about.
It’s so damn comfortable.
The Vive’s incredibly powerful, but its design was rudimentary even at launch. It was basically equivalent to Oculus’s second dev kit—a bulky pair of goggles held on by a three-part elastic strap. Problem 1: Adjusting the straps is cumbersome. Problem 2: The Vive itself is heavy, so the elastic doesn’t hold it as still as you’d like. Problem 3: If you overtighten the straps so it moves less, it turns your face into mashed potatoes.
Compare that with the consumer version of the Oculus Rift, which uses a rigid plastic band to both offset the weight and keep the headset more stable. And…well, HTC has “borrowed” that design for the Vive.
The Deluxe Audio Strap somewhat combines the more rigid designs used by the Rift and Sony’s PlayStation VR. It slips onto the head like a baseball cap; the front portion folds down in front of your eyes, and then—and this is the real magic—it tightens by way of a wheel in the back, like a bike helmet. No more Velcro straps.
It takes mere seconds to get the headset on and adjusted, and it stays adjusted thanks to the more rigid design. Looking down towards the ground is surprisingly difficult with the Vive’s current elastic bands, because the weight of the headset tends to pull it away from your eyes unless you overtighten. But with the new Strap, there’s no movement at all. It’s as good as Oculus’s headband, or maybe even a bit better thanks to the generous padding around the sides.
And the Deluxe Audio Strap also matches Oculus’s other killer feature: the built-in headphones. When Oculus first announced that the Rift would come with built-in headphones it seemed silly. Most people own better headphones than the ones the Rift is equipped with.
It soon became clear that built-in headphones remove a lot of the hassle, though. There’s less weight to deal with, less futzing around trying to figure out where you set them down, less steps between thinking about VR and being in VR.
So again, HTC “borrowed” an idea and the Deluxe Audio Strap draws its name from the built-in headphones. And again, the Vive’s seem a bit better than Oculus’s solution—more padding, a less scratchy material on the ears, and easier to move into place.
Now the downside is, of course, that the Deluxe Audio Strap is being positioned as a Deluxe item. An add-on. It doesn’t annoy me as much as, say, Oculus positioning Touch as “optional”—that has a direct impact on what games developers make and the health of the VR ecosystem. The Vive’s new strap is a somewhat superfluous item, at least as far as developers are concerned. A person with built-in headphones and a person without still have essentially the same experience.
But—and it’s a huge but—I think the Deluxe Audio Strap will be a must-buy for most people. Even after my brief time using it at GDC, I’m already dreading going back to my Vive’s old elastic bands and cumbersome adjustment process, plus having to grab headphones each time I use it for the next few months.
The Deluxe Audio Strap is more comfortable, more reliable, and probably what the Vive should’ve shipped with to begin with. We’ll have an actual review up when it releases in May, after spending a lot more time with it, but right now I think anyone who wants the best Vive experience is going to want one of these.
The Vive Tracker’s a bit more complicated, at least for home users.
I should say up front: Both of the Tracker demos I did during GDC were excellent. First I tried a pair of shooters brought to the show by VRsenal, and then a few rounds of boxing game Knockout League. The Vive Tracker is basically the top of one of the Vive’s wands, and is position-tracked by the same Lighthouse system—but it can be built into custom peripherals.
And that was the catch with these demos. VRsenal strapped me into one of MSI’s backpack computers, put a Vive on my head, and then handed me a gun that wasn’t real, but real-looking enough that you might not want to carry it down the street. It also was surprisingly heavy, mimicking the feel of an actual assault rifle.
There’s a Vive Tracker embedded where the rear sight would normally be though, and thus it’s fully position-tracked within games—just like a standard Vive wand. Aiming felt completely natural, and I had a great time crawling around on the floor, leaning over imaginary walls and sniping robots. You can even “reload” the VRsenal gun, since the battery is hidden inside the magazine. Press a button, pull it out, and you’ll see the MicroUSB port inside. When it’s done charging, you slam it back in.
Knockout League’s Trackers were a bit more conspicuous, drilled and mounted on the back of standard boxing gloves. It worked similarly though, with my real-world boxing gloves mapping 1-to-1 with the boxing gloves I wore in virtual reality, allowing me to (poorly) bob, weave, and throw haymakers at my opponent.
It’s really amazing tech and I’m fascinated by all the approaches we’re seeing from manufacturers. There are a few problems though.
The first, of course, is the age-old question, “How many peripherals do you want in your house?” I’m sure many of you have (or had) a closet full of Rock Band and Guitar Hero gear, and while it’s great fun in the moment, eventually it’s just a bunch of stuff you try to store out-of-sight-out-of-mind.
Related: “How much are you willing to spend on weird peripherals?” The Vive Tracker will be sold to developers for $99 each. Expect peripherals to cost at least $150 to $200, and given the quality of VRsenal’s gun, I bet that would be even more expensive. Sure, VR is a pricey hobby and some people are no doubt willing to pony up, but it’s going to be hard for manufacturers to get custom peripherals into people’s homes.
Arcades? That’s the real sell here, I think. HTC’s made no secret it wants to expand into arcade-type settings, giving operators a subset of software and charging a flat rate for every hour played. With the bigger spaces afforded by arcades, and the need for a unique and impressive experience, it makes more sense for business owners to buy a few position-tracked guns, some boxing gloves, or whatever else manufacturers imagine.
That audio strap, though. It’s so nice, and I can’t say it enough. Hopefully there aren’t any glaring issues with the final release—as I said, we’ll need to spend more time with it before rendering a verdict or giving an official recommendation. I’m excited though, with my Vive experiences this week being way more comfortable over long periods of time than anything I’ve done at home.
We’ll just have to see what developers dream up with the Tracker. There are all sorts of potential applications, and I can’t wait for some random genius to generate the next big wave of VR enthusiasm with a custom-built controller.