As expected, the final announcement from Valve Software on Friday was a Steam controller, not the speculated Source 2 engine. The company calls the new device a "different kind of gamepad", sporting dual circular trackpads, superior haptic feedback, a touch screen, and several well-placed buttons. The controller was designed from the ground up to be "hackable" as well, and the company plans to release tools so that users can help shape the peripheral's evolution.
"We set out with a singular goal: bring the Steam experience, in its entirety, into the living-room. We knew how to build the user interface, we knew how to build a machine, and even an operating system," Valve states. "But that still left input — our biggest missing link. We realized early on that our goals required a new kind of input technology — one that could bridge the gap from the desk to the living room without compromises. So we spent a year experimenting with new approaches to input and we now believe we’ve arrived at something worth sharing and testing with you."
Valve's new controller will work on all games listed on Steam, even the older titles not designed for controller support. The company says that it has "fooled" these older games into thinking they’re being played with a keyboard and mouse. This indicated that Valve has developed mapping software within SteamOS and the Steam client that allows users to, for example, place the mouse left-click function to the controller's left trigger button.
The face of the controller provides two huge circular trackpads, replacing analog sticks. The touchscreen sits in the middle, with triangular "X" and "Y" buttons mounted on the left of the screen, and "B" and "A" buttons on the right. There are two trigger buttons on each shoulder, and three buttons lined along the bottom of the touchscreen/trackpad group. The touchscreen and trackpads are also clickable, reducing the need for three extra buttons on the surface.
"Every button and input zone has been placed based on frequency of use, precision required and ergonomic comfort," the company says. "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."
The new controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, the company claims, using dual linear resonant actuators. These weighted electro-magnets are attached to each of the dual trackpads, and are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration. This in turn delivers in-game information about speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events.
"In the center of the controller is another touch-enabled surface, this one backed by a high-resolution screen," the company says. "The screen allows an infinite number of discrete actions to be made available to the player, without requiring an infinite number of physical buttons. Players can swipe through pages of actions in games where that’s appropriate. When programmed by game developers using our API, the touch screen can work as a scrolling menu, a radial dial, provide secondary info like a map or use other custom input modes we haven’t thought of yet."
The new controller will be part of the Steam Machines beta program. Versions shipping to the 300 participants won't have touchscreens, and won't be wireless, requiring a USB connection. The company also says the peripheral works with the Steam client, meaning it will be compatible with any machine with the client installed.
"We’re done with our announcements, and we promise to switch gears now and talk specifics over here in our Steam Universe community group," the company says. "Also we’ll talk soon about the design process and how we’ve arrived at our current prototype."
To build a PC with comparable performance from what one could expect from the new consoles is going to cost north of $700 (more if you include Windows).
So, can the optimizations of the Steambox and the more efficient Linux OS make up say $200 worth the difference so these things can be priced between $400-500? If they can, and the developer support is there, this is a winner. I would almost rather see Steam self branding one of these things and selling it at cost or maybe even a loss with hopes profits will be made up through game sales. OEMs are going to want to make some profit off hardware sales which will drive up consumer cost.
Keep in mind, the new Consoles are also starting out with even less games than are currently available on Steam for Linux. This means pretty much an even playing field on the console front. What's even more interesting is the fact that all of the consoles will be based on x86 and likely either Mantle or OpenGL all of which are supported by Linux. This goes without mentioning that the PS4 is running a version of FreeBSD which is very similar to Linux. All of these factors mean porting games between these platforms should be relatively simple.
An OS built from the ground up to prioritize input, video, and audio performance will probably perform slightly better than a general purpose OS on the same hardware. Also, since the OS will be free and downloadable you could still build a 700 machine and get better hardware, and that makes it a no brainer.
If the controller ends up being any good, and they include support for steam games on Windows then they will at least get a sale from me there, but I don't think I am going to buy into a proprietary 'game' OS or console box ever again.