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New controller is like Dual Shock + WiiU tablet merged into one controller

On Wednesday and Friday, Valve Corp. unveiled some of its plans for living room console dominance that began with the unveil of a Linux-based operating system designed to cater to home-theater PC (HTPC) and console gaming fans.

I. The (Non)Launch of Steam Boxes Adds to Mystery

On Wednesday, Valve teased Steam Boxes and announced a beta testing program, which will give away 300 free consoles to testers who complete a basic set of requirements involving the Steam game distribution network and assorted paperwork:

Steam Box

Notably Valve did not show off any actual hardware on Wednesday, despite being rumored to be working with 15 to 20 top PC makers on Steam Boxes.  This is not entirely surprising, given that Valve's intention for some time now has been to ship the Steam Boxes sometime in 2014.  Valve writes:

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.

The biggest mystery is what exactly is in the some 15 to 20 Steam Box designs Valve has commissioned.  Quasi-CEO Gabe Newell had previously told The Verge that hardware would be split into "good" (~$100 USD), "better" ($300+ USD), and "best" hardware tiers, with the top level having no cap on the allowed hardware or price.

Some of the commissioned devices are rumored to have a fourth generation Intel Corp. (INTC) Core i7-Series processor, an undisclosed NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) graphics processing unit, and 8 GB of DRAM.  But Valve shed no further light on the specifications mystery at its somewhat vaporous Wednesday "unveil".

Steam Box

SteamBox back
A reported Steam Box prototype [Image Source: Polygon]

Regardless, we should get solid information on the spec shortly as units trickle out to beta testers at the end of next month.

II. A Gamepad for RTS? Valve Thinks So!

On Friday Valve showed off something a bit more substantial -- the Steam controller.  Rumored for months via Valve's patent filings, the new controller toes the line between a Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Xbox One controller and a Nintendo Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7974) Wii U controller.

Steam Controller

One highlight of the controller is its twin "trackpads", circular thumb areas which are clickable.  

Steam Controller

Valve claims the trackpads rival the resolution of a gaming mouse -- a pretty impressive feat for a gamepad, if true.  The trackpads also feature a unique form of force feedback.  Valve explains:

Trackpads, by their nature, are less physical than thumbsticks. By themselves, they are “light touch” devices and don’t offer the kind of visceral feedback that players get from pushing joysticks around. As we investigated trackpad-based input devices, it became clear through testing that we had to find ways to add more physicality to the experience. It also became clear that “rumble”, as it has been traditionally implemented (a lopsided weight spun around a single axis), was not going to be enough. Not even close.

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 movemen
t.

Valve claims that the controllers are so responsive they can even act as tiny speakers.

Steam Controller

The controller also features, as hinted at above, a central touchscreen, which Steam says will allow unique functions via an API it's offering developers (think hotkeys).  The controller has four other hardware buttons on the front face, and two "portal" buttons on the shoulders, which typically execute a mouse click action.

Steam Controller

Valve is seeking beta testers for early wired versions of the controllers.  Later versions will be wireless.

III. Developers Praise Controller, Remind it's Still a Prototype

Developers who tested the controller seemed relatively pleased with its design in interviews compiled by Engadget.  Fredrik Wester, CEO and president of Paradox Interactive, said in his brief time with the controller, he found it very easy to learn, relating, "I have used the controller for about 20 minutes for a third-person game and it took me about five minutes to learn, and then it felt natural."

And Ichiro Lambe, Dejobaan Games president, comments, "It feels comfortable, yet different from anything I've used before...Within five minutes of picking it up, I went from newbie to controlling an FPS camera better than I'd ever done with a gamepad."

RTS gaming
Game developers are unsure whether Valve's vision of gamepad RTS gaming are practical.
[Image Source: DailyTech LLC]

One minor gripe he has is the lack of hard physical limits to your motion.  He remarks, "I think analog sticks are better at defining boundaries -- for instance, I can mash a stick forward as far as I physically can, and I know I'm going to walk forward as quickly as I can. I just can't push it forward any further. The trackpads require more finesse; my thumbs will have to learn where to stop."

Valve is claiming that the controller with open up gamepad real-time strategy (RTS) -- an ambitious target that's never been fully achieved on the PC.  Sega (Sammy Holdings Inc. (TYO:6460)) VP John Clark, has perhaps the best advice of all, reminding the masses not to get too worked up and judge the controller prematurely -- be it good or bad.  He comments, "[Remember], it's a prototype and the purpose of the beta is for the developers to experiment."

Valve -- who gets most of its revenue from PC gamers -- has indeed stoked the interest of the anti-Windows 8 crowd who are eyeing this Linux as a possible alternative.  But there are still more question than answers -- "Where's Half Life 3?", "What's the hardware in the boxes?" "How many premium game developers will use Valve's Steam Controller API?"

Valve Half Life 2
Wed. and Friday brought no Half Life 3. [Image Source: Valve]
 
Hopefully the answers will come over the course of this holiday season, as the Steam Box ecosystem creeps closer to product form. 

Sources: Valve [1], [2], Engadget, The Verge



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RE: What am I missing?
By NellyFromMA on 10/1/2013 12:26:54 PM , Rating: 2
Bottom line is they want you to abandon Windows in favor of SteamOS, which is a 'lite OS' that CLAIMS to have appreciable performance benefits for gaming by removing 'built in latency' whatever that even means as no one has noticed this in the 15-20 years games have been coming out for PC...

Of course, this is a foot-in-the-door tactic and essentially they will expand the OS to actually be worthy of being compared to Windows in the way of, you know, actual OS functionality. However, then that begs the question of what SteamOS does or offers that Windows does not.

Honestly, I don't get it either. Sounds like marketing hype centered around a service that I enjoy, yet performs sporadically and all-too-often disconnects in the middle of a great round of Zombies... meh-factor x 1000 but we'll see.

They dont' make it overly clear why anyone should abandon Windows for this OS, as dual booting isn't exactly in a casual users toolset.

It just seems irrelevant to me.

On the controller-side of things though, I'm curious to see if this is hype or not. Could be cool stuff.


RE: What am I missing?
By inighthawki on 10/1/2013 1:09:12 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Bottom line is they want you to abandon Windows in favor of SteamOS, which is a 'lite OS' that CLAIMS to have appreciable performance benefits for gaming by removing 'built in latency' whatever that even means as no one has noticed this in the 15-20 years games have been coming out for PC...

They are likely just capitalizing on Microsoft's stagnation in the gaming industry lately (lack of new features and builds of DirectX) by taking advantage of a few new hardware features like NVidia's bindless graphics extensions in OpenGL that remove some of the overhead of draw calls on the CPU, and maybe a few features to enhance the presentation model to reduce latency introduced by things like vsync (stuff like NVidia's adaptive vsync model). The end result is that it should be easier to get a little better perf than with DirectX or OpenGL in its current form on Windows or Linux, but I sincerely doubt it will be a huge difference for long.

The actual compute power of the GPU itself will remain the same. There's no API or programming model which will suddenly allow the hardware to do more than it can on a different platform.


RE: What am I missing?
By TheJian on 10/8/2013 5:56:06 PM , Rating: 2
The built in latency for windows is the amount of time I ponder the next OS upgrade due to $90-150 coming out of my wallet. With a FREE OS there is no latency in my decision...ROFL. I just download and install, no fear of "aww crap, this OS is junk, now I'm out $90-150"... :)


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