Want to pick up real objects in the virtual world? Now you can.
Last year, HTC announced a major upgrade for Vive, its room-sized virtual reality system. It was called the Tracker, a dongle you could place on any item and follow its position, perfectly, in VR. This opened the door for, say, a virtual bat that you could actually swing in virtual baseball games–and pretty much anything else your heart could virtually imagine making its way into VR.
— Patrick Hackett (@phacktweets) April 19, 2017
Now, we’re beginning to see what developers are actually building with the Tracker. And while the demos are spectacular from a technical standpoint, they’re head-scratching in terms of common sense UX.
Take this new, unnamed project developed at Google, by the same creatives that brought us Tilt Brush (the best drawing app, and probably the best VR app period to date). The new project is a virtual pottery wheel. You place the tracker on a wheel, it spins, and inside VR, you can shape streams of light like you would shape a hunk of clay into a fine vase in real life.
I, like everyone else in the world, believe I’d be the greatest clay sculptor in the universe if only offered the opportunity and the right, loosely fitting denim shirt. I’m as ready as anyone to have my Ghost moment in the privacy of my own home. But who is this product for? Someone who is interested enough in pottery to buy a cheap wheel, but fears ovens or doesn’t like getting their hands dirty?
That said, the developers describe it as purely an experiment. It’s not for shipping. So we can’t be too hard on them.
Let’s break down how playing this piñata game in VR really works for the end user:
Step 1: Buy a piñata.
Step 2: Attach a Tracker to the piñata.
Step 3: Hang the piñata.
Step 4: Find the proper implement to strike the piñata.
Step 5: Put on VR headset and strike the piñata.
I mean, I get it! I bet that virtual piñata feels great to hit–completely indistinguishable from hitting a real piñata.
So I’m left, jaw agape, at what is possible here. And yet, I’m entirely confused how its ergonomics can squeeze into our real lives. Don’t we want to use VR specifically to do the things that we cannot do in real life? Don’t I want to use VR to climb Everest (without going to Everest), or fly like a bird (without wearing one of those crazy squirrel suits)? Don’t I want to whack a VR piñata if I, for some reason, don’t have access to a real piñata? Don’t I want to try pottery without investing in the equipment?
This is all not to say that HTC’s Vive Tracker is entirely pointless. For one, there is a burgeoning market for high-end VR you might visit like a movie theater. And in this scenario, maybe it’s worth putting on a giant tracked proton pack and pretending to be a Ghostbuster for a night. Companies like IMAX are investing in this future, and there’s no reason that HTC should hand over the market so early.
But I can’t help but think both HTC and these developers themselves are using the Tracker not to prototype the future of VR, but to prototype the mixed reality world to come–the world full of pixelated murk which companies like Facebook and Snap are investing in heavily, where the analog and digital combine. In this world, it’s not that every object can be fit with a Vive Tracker. It’s that every object will already be tracked. And what we do with that information? That’s what these experiments are trying to figure out–a decade ahead of schedule.