Vive Tracker Brings Easier VR Hacking

CES 2017 is over and there were VR gadgets and announcements aplenty, but here’s an item that’s worth an extra mention because it reflects a positive direction we can’t wait to see more of. HTC announced the Vive Tracker, to be released within the next few months.

The Tracker looks a bit like a cross between a hockey puck and a crown. It is a self-contained, VR trackable device with a hardware port and built-in power supply. It can be used on its own or attached to any physical object to make that object trackable and interactive in VR. No need to roll your own hardware to interface with the Vive’s Lighthouse tracking system.

Valve have been remarkably open about the technical aspects of their hardware and tracking system, and have stated they want to help people develop their own projects using the system. We’ve seen very frank and open communication on the finer points of what it took to make the Lighthouse system work. Efforts at reverse-engineering the protocol used by the controller even got friendly advice. For all the companies making headway into VR, Valve continues to be an interesting one from a hacking perspective.

[Image source for bottom of Tracker: RoadToVR]

 

Alan Yates: Why Valve’s Lighthouse Can’t Work

[Alan Yates] is a hacker’s engineer. His job at Valve has been to help them figure out the hardware that makes virtual reality (VR) a real reality. And he invented a device that’s clever enough that it really should work, but difficult enough that it wasn’t straightforward how to make it work.

In his presentation at the Hackaday Supercon 2016, he walked us through all of the design and engineering challenges that were eventually conquered in getting the Lighthouse to market. We’re still a bit overwhelmed by the conceptual elegance of the device, so it’s nice to have the behind-the-scenes details as well.

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Revealed: Homebrew Controller Working in Steam VR

[Florian] has been putting a lot of work into VR controllers that can be used without interfering with a regular mouse + keyboard combination, and his most recent work has opened the door to successfully emulating a Vive VR controller in Steam VR. He uses Arduino-based custom hardware on the hand, a Leap Motion controller, and fuses the data in software.

We’ve seen [Florian]’s work before in successfully combining a Leap Motion with additional hardware sensors. The idea is to compensate for the fact that the Leap Motion sensor is not very good at detecting some types of movement, such as tilting a fist towards or away from yourself — a movement similar to aiming a gun up or down. At the same time, an important goal is for any added hardware to leave fingers and hands free.

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[CNLohr] Reverses Vive, Valve Engineers Play Along

[CNLohr] needs no introduction around these parts. He’s pulled off a few really epic hacks. Recently, he’s set his sights on writing a simple, easy to extend library to work with the HTC Vive VR controller equipment, and in particular the Watchman controller.

There’s been a lot of previous work on the device, so [Charles] wasn’t starting from scratch, and he live-streamed his work, allowing others to play along. In the process, two engineers who actually worked on the hardware in question, [Alan Yates] and [Ben Jackson], stopped by and gave some oblique hints and “warmer-cooler” guidance. A much-condensed version is up on YouTube (and embedded below). In the links, you’ll find code and the live streams in their original glory, if you want to see what went down blow by blow. Code and more docs are in this Gist.

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Lighthouse Locates Drone; Achieves Autonomous Battery Swap

The HTC Vive’s Lighthouse localization system is one of the cleverest things we’ve seen in a while. It uses a synchronization flash followed by a swept beam to tell any device that can see the lights exactly where it is in space. Of course, the device has to understand the signals to figure it out.

[Alex Shtuchkin] built a very well documented device that can use these signals to localize itself in your room. For now, the Lighthouse stations are still fairly expensive, but the per-device hardware requirements are quite reasonable. [Alex] has the costs down around ten dollars plus the cost of a microcontroller if your project doesn’t already include one. Indeed, his proof-of-concept is basically a breadboard, three photodiodes, op-amps, and some code.

His demo is awesome! Check it out in the video below. He uses it to teach a quadcopter to land itself back on a charging platform, and it’s able to get there with what looks like a few centimeters of play in any direction — more than good enough to land in the 3D-printed plastic landing thingy. That fixture has a rotating drum that swaps out the battery automatically, readying the drone for another flight.

If this is just the tip of the iceberg of upcoming Lighthouse hacks, we can’t wait!

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HTC Vive Gives Autonomous Robots Direction

The HTC Vive is a virtual reality system designed to work with Steam VR. The system seeks to go beyond just a headset in order to make an entire room a virtual reality environment by using two base stations that track the headset and controller in space. The hardware is very exciting because of the potential to expand gaming and other VR experiences, but it’s already showing significant potential for hackers as well — in this case with robotics location and navigation.

Autonomous robots generally utilize one of two basic approaches for locating themselves: onboard sensors and mapping to see the world around it (like how you’d get your bearings while hiking), or sensors in the room which tell the robot where it is (similar to your GPS telling you where you are in the city). Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, of course. Onboard sensors are traditionally expensive if you need very accurate position data, and GPS location data is far too inaccurate to be of use on a smaller scale than city streets.

[Limor] immediately saw the potential in the HTC Vive to solve this problem, at least for indoor applications. Using the Vive Lighthouse base stations, he’s able to locate the system’s controller in 3D space to within 0.3mm. He’s then able to use this data on a Linux system and integrate it into ROS (Robot Operating System). [Limor] hasn’t yet built a robot to utilize this approach, but the significant cost savings ($800 for a complete Vive, but only the Lighthouses and controller are needed) is sure to make this a desirable option for a lot of robot builders. And, as we’ve seen, integrating the Vive hardware with DIY electronics should be entirely possible.

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Using The Vive’s Lighthouse With DIY Electronics

The HTC Vive is the clear winner of the oncoming VR war, and is ready to enter the hallowed halls of beloved consumer electronics behind the Apple Watch, Smart Home devices, the 3Com Audrey, and Microsoft’s MSN TV. This means there’s going to be a lot of Vives on the secondhand market very soon, opening the doors to some interesting repurposing of some very cool hardware.

[Trammell Hudson] has been messing around with the Vive’s Lighthouse – the IR emitting cube that gives the Vive its sense of direction. There’s nothing really special about this simple box, and it can indeed be used to give any microcontroller project an orientation sensor.

The Vive’s Lighthouse is an exceptionally cool piece of tech that uses multiple scanning IR laser diodes and a bank of LEDs that allows the Vive to sense its own orientation. It does this by alternately blinking and scanning lasers from left to right and top to bottom. The relevant measurements that can be determined from two Lighthouses are the horizontal angle from the first lighthouse, the vertical angle from the first lighthouse, and the horizontal angle from the second lighthouse. That’s all you need to orient the Vive in 3D space.

To get a simple microcontroller to do the same trick, [Trammell] is using a fast phototransistor with a 120° field of view. This setup only works out to about a meter away from the Lighthouses, but that’s enough for testing.

[Trammell] is working on a Lighthouse library for the Arduino and ESP8266, and so far, everything works. He’s able to get the angle of a breadboard to a Lighthouse with just a little bit of code. This is a great enabling build that is going to allow a lot of people to build some very cool stuff, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.