What's the Deal with HTC Vive's new Tracker?

This year at CES we saw some pretty amazing products, especially in the VR space. When it comes to 3rd party peripherals, like the ones that we develop at Ilium VR, the most important announcement was definitely the new Vive tracker.

What is the Vive tracker?


The Vive is able to track its 3D position in space precisely because it’s built on Lighthouse tracking technology. Here is a more detailed explanation I did previously. The technology works well and is very scalable, so there has been a huge demand for third party peripherals and headsets that use lighthouse tech.

Valve responded by opening up a licensing program to allow custom devices to be made from scratch. This requires companies to pay for a training session and have the capabilities to produce design and manufacture electronics and plastics. T also required every device to have it’s own FCC certification and other regulatory approvals. Not all companies had those capabilities or the money to do so.

The tracker solves that problem by significantly lowering those development costs. It is a device that uses lighthouse tracking, can be mounted easily onto various products, and has electrical connections for various inputs and outputs. They have already gone through the process of FCC certification and manufacturing of the complex parts of the lighthouse system.

In the end this is going to drastically increase the rate of 3rd party peripherals and their quality. Companies can focus on developing an experiences instead of being forced to recreate the fundamental technology for each product.

What does this mean for Ilium VR?

Ilium VR has always been a general VR company. We are building the products that bring the best virtual reality experiences to life. This includes guns as well as other potential peripherals. This tracker will allow us to develop those products more quickly and at a lower cost than we ever could before.

The Technology Behind Athena

One of the most important parts of any VR experience is perfect tracking of the hardware. For Athena and any other gun controller this mostly affects aiming, which is by far the most critically important aspect.

In the 2 years that we have been developing controllers we’ve tried a bunch of solutions to solve the problem of positional tracking, some internally developed, and some off the shelf solutions. After the release of the Vive and adding Vive support to our Persuader Developer kit, we knew that the Lighthouse system is the best tracking tech available right now.

Lighthouse technology

As of now Athena is the one of the only 3rd party peripherals with Lighthouse technology built into the product. It allows us to have near-perfect tracking and software support for pretty much any game on the SteamVR platform.

The Lighthouse system was internally developed by a team at Valve led by Alan Yates. Once the technology was far enough along, it was licensed to HTC to develop the Vive headset and controllers. Now they have opened up the license to a bunch of other companies to develop 3rd party hardware, including Ilium VR.

How it works

In the Lighthouse system the 3 main components are the tracked object, the Base station, and the computer.

The tracked object is usually a Headset or controller. In this case it is Athena. Athena has a gyroscope and accelerometer, and a couple dozen infrared sensors placed all over it’s surface. These sensors detect infrared lasers emitted from the Base Stations.



The Base Stations are mounted on opposite sides of your play space and emit sweeping laser lines across the room. Athena records the specific time that each sensor detects those laser lines, and sends that data to your computer.

Along with the infrared sensor data, Athena sends the motion data from the gyroscope and accelerometer. Your computer and the SteamVR software take all of this data, put it through some complex calculus and trigonometry, and figure out the position of the controller. The sensors and lasers are calibrated so precisely that the position is accurate to under a millimeter.

That level of accuracy is incredibly important for all VR experiences, and especially peripherals like Athena.


SteamVR is the software platform that supports all of this. It serves as the glue between the physical devices and the games that use them. The device interface to SteamVR is pretty generic. It only needs to know how many sensors there are and where they are, as well as a 3D model to represent the controller in game.

Once all of that information is plugged in the SteamVR driver does all of the hard work of making Athena compatible with any SteamVR game out there. Athena provides all of the inputs that a regular Vive controller does, so at a basic level all of the same interactions will work.

With a small amount of software, which Ilium VR provides, Game studios can support all of the additional features that Athena’s hardware has built in.

The Journey to Athena

Hey everyone! This week we released the designs of the controller we currently have in the works – Athena. This product has been in the works for a long time, and we’re super excited to finally share some of it with everyone.

In the spirit of this announcement, I’m excited to share with you the whole process of Athena’s design that led us to this.

The beginning of this journey was over a year ago, when we were still retrofitting airsoft rifles into controller prototypes. We hit up two excellent 3D digital designers, Kolel and Jarell Pryor, to create this first vision of Athena which you can see below.

We played around with this for a long time, including some 3D printed and CNC milled prototypes of this form, but ultimately it was set aside as we worked on creating the Persuader, continuing to use existing airsoft rifles as the base to keep our costs as low as possible.


Another idea we toyed with around that time was a multifunctional rifle with removable parts to transform into different form factors, such as a pistol. You can see the concept art of this idea below.


Fast forward about a year later, and we’re wrapping up our second developer program with the Persuader and looking to the future. We hit up Jarell again to restart the process of designing the Athena you see now.

First step in the process was some silhouettes. Our designer gave us the following options as a starting point to guide the design.


After getting our feedback on that, we got this beauty!


Looks good right? But it needs some color.

We found this to be a little too purple-y, and we also had some small shape change ideas for a more futuristic look. We felt the stock should be a little less curvy and the color scheme more muted. The final round of adjustments led us to what you’ve already seen, the final Athena design.

And here she is.