Hands-on with HTC Vive's barrier-breaking accessories

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With the ViveTracker, anything can be a VR controller – gloves, bats, guns and more(Credit: Emily Ferron/New Atlas)

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Today at CES, we experienced HTC's latest additions to the Vive ecosystem. The improved headphones and wireless adapter make the PC-powered VR headset easier to wear, while the ViveTracker dramatically expands the possibilities for the kinds of objects that can be used as a controller or gamepad.

First, the new Deluxe Audio Strap (Vive's moniker for the improved headphone setup) is remarkably comfortable, easy to adjust and seamlessly mounts onto the Vive. It was hard to determine the exact quality of the audio in the busy demonstration area, but it was still easy to tell which direction in the virtual world that sounds were coming from.

Next, the TPCAST wireless adapter replaces the HDMI and power cords running between the headset and PC. The US$249 accessory consists of a receiver worn on the top strap of the headset with a rechargeable battery pack connected to the back. Based on earlier images, we expected the battery pack to be mounted directly on the headset, but to our slight disappointment there is still one cable involved. The battery goes in the wearer's pocket, with a wire running to the Vive.

It's a big plus to remove the cable from underfoot, but it is possible to get distracted by its movement during otherwise immersive play. It also requires wearing clothing with a full-sized back pocket (my leggings, with their partially sewn-shut vanity pockets, were less than ideal). The 6,000mAh battery affords up to two hours of VR time per charge.

The HDMI-replacing sensor at the top of the headset was still fairly comfortable and secure due to its top-of-the-head placement. More importantly, I could not detect any illusion-disrupting latency issues, the main concern of wireless VR skeptics, during my brief demo play.

The Vive Tracker was my personal favorite of the hardware additions. The small pronged accessory, which is about the size of a hockey puck and much much lighter, seems to be able to turn anything into a VR controller. Baseball bats, gloves, guns and even fire hoses were all represented.

Feeling the weight and tactility of a real-life prop (and even tiring from it) made the PC-based headset experience more like an arcade game, or better yet, real life. Of course, it works on some props better than others. It's unnoticeable on a giant machine gun, but it felt ridiculous on the wrist of a glove. Its open-ended nature leaves developers and third-party accessory manufacturers to dream up a world of possibilities, but we wonder if it will also open the door for an expensive, difficult-to-wrangle arsenal of future peripherals.

We also previewed an exciting application of the ViveTracker that enables non-isolated multiplayer experiences. Up until this point, VR multiplayer games have had to be played by remote players. Even if two friends have a complete Vive setup, they'd need to play in separate contained spaces so that the Lighthouse base stations (which enable room-scale movement) do not interfere with one another.

ViveTracker, connected to a gun accessory and a compatible smartphone, allowed a second player to join in on Vive fun sans headset. While the main player wears a headset and is completely immersed in VR, the second player can play alongside using the mobile setup. It's not as good as being in high-end VR, but it also means that folks without the expensive suite of Vive gear could eventually play along with those that have one.

The TPCAST is expected to become available in the US in Q2 of this year. HTC has not pinpointed the release date for the Tracker and Audio Strap, but a representative told us that they will eventually be bundled with the headset. It's unclear whether that means a price hike for the Vive, but considering its current $800 price tag, we sure hope not.

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