Valve’s worst kept secret, the “Steambox”, has finally been officially announced! What does Valve have in store for turning PC gamers into steamed couch potatoes? (Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?)
Over the course of last week, Valve officially announced their entry into the console field (which was no secret to the gaming public at large), as well as what sort of software and hardware they’ll use to make it happen. The announcements, in order, were SteamOS, Steam Machines, and the Steam Controller. All were more or less expected, but there were still some surprises tossed in.
First announced was SteamOS. This, like the aforementioned “Steambox”, was expected.
Valve’s spiel from the announcement page:
As we’ve been working on bringing Steam to the living room, we’ve come to the conclusion that the environment best suited to delivering value to customers is an operating system built around Steam itself.
SteamOS combines the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen. It will be available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living room machines.
They’re aiming to replace the typical game console with this concept…but there’s more. They aim to bring “Four new Steam features focused on the living room”: In-Game Streaming; Music, TV & Movies; Family Sharing; and Family Options. In other words, they don’t want to just replace game consoles, they want to replace your media box, too. Most interestingly, “SteamOS will be available soon as a free download for users and as a freely licensable operating system for manufacturers.”
Yes, manufacturers. Which brings us to the second announcement: Steam Machines. Everyone thought that this was going to be Valve saying “Yup, we’re making a console, and here it is!” Nope.
From the Steam Machines announcement:
Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world. We want you to be able to choose the hardware that makes sense for you, so we are working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market during 2014, all of them running SteamOS.
In short: yes, there will be a Steambox, but not by Valve. And there will be many of them. It’s too soon to guess who Valve has tapped to produce them, but rumors will be flying around about it soon enough. You know who else Valve is tapping? The gaming public at large. They need to beta test the Steam Machines before they go fully public, and they have 300 prototypes to give away. All you have to do is fulfill a quest. I’ll let Valve do the talking on this one.
Want to make yourself eligible to participate in the beta? Add yourself to the list of candidates by completing the Eligibility Quest on Steam. Sound hard? It’s not.THE HARDWARE BETA ELIGIBILITY QUEST:Before October 25, log in to Steam and then visit your quest page to track your current status towards beta test eligibility1. Join the Steam Universe community group2. Agree to the Steam Hardware Beta Terms and Conditions3. Make 10 Steam friends (if you haven’t already)4. Create a public Steam Community profile (if you haven’t already)5. Play a game using a gamepad in Big Picture mode
They’ve gone and pretty much taken the basics of what makes a controller a controller and turned them squarely on their head.
Here’s a bit [or in some cases, everything they’ve told us] about each special feature.
The most prominent elements of the Steam controller are its two circular trackpads. Driven by the player’s thumbs, each one has a high-resolution trackpad as its base. It is also clickable, allowing the entire surface to act as a button. The trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers. Steam gamers, who are used to the input associated with PCs, will appreciate that the Steam Controller’s resolution approaches that of a desktop mouse.
The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators. These small, strong, weighted electro-magnets are attached to each of the dual trackpads. They are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.
In the center of the controller is another touch-enabled surface, this one backed by a high-resolution screen. This surface, too, is critical to achieving the controller’s primary goal: supporting all games in the Steam catalog. The screen allows an infinite number of discrete actions to be made available to the player, without requiring an infinite number of physical buttons.
Every button and input zone has been placed based on frequency of use, precision required and ergonomic comfort. There are a total of sixteen buttons on the Steam Controller. Half of them are accessible to the player without requiring thumbs to be lifted from the trackpads, including two on the back. All controls and buttons have been placed symmetrically, making left or right handedness switchable via a software config checkbox.
In order to support the full catalog of existing Steam games (none of which were built with the Steam Controller in mind), we have built in a legacy mode that allows the controller to present itself as a keyboard and mouse. The Steam Community can use the configuration tool to create and share bindings for their favorite games. Players can choose from a list of the most popular configurations.
The Steam Controller was designed from the ground up to be hackable. Just as the Steam Community and Workshop contributors currently deliver tremendous value via additions to software products on Steam, we believe that they will meaningfully contribute to the design of the Steam Controller. We plan to make tools available that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.
My favorite part of this whole thing is how they appear to have put the user at the forefront of each and every design decision. Put SteamOS on your own Steam Machine, hack your controller to work just how you like it, and share your favorite games with friends and family. It’s a tall order, but if they can pull this off, things are really going to change in living rooms of gamers across the world. Valve has made some pretty big promises, and probably has both the gumption and the resources to really make it happen.
Let’s speculate: What companies do you think are going to step forward to build the upcoming Steam Machines, and what do you think they’ll call them? I’m waiting for all the clever steam-related puns…in fact, my brain is a little foggy just thinking about it.
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