Valve has announced exactly how it’ll be taking over your living room in the next few months. First, there was an operating system. Then, there was a games machine. Now, there’s something else: The Steam Controller.
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. 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.
The first thing you’ll notice: No analogue sticks. Instead, the Steam Controller (that’s a catchy name, but not likely the one it’ll stick with) features two circular trackpads. The entire surface of the pad is also clickable, so it doubles as a button. The resolution “approaches that of a desktop mouse”, claims Valve – something more suited to gamers who are used to keyboard+mouse controls.
Of course, the trackpads are a less tactile control system than traditional joysticks, so Valve faced the challenge to find a new way to provide visceral feedback gamers are used to. It soon became clear that rumble “was not going to be enough”, so the team kept searching and came up with a new solution: Haptic feedback, created through a couple of dual linear resonant actuators (that is, strong electro-magnets that can create force and vibration within the controller).
This haptic capability provides a vital channel of information to the player – delivering in-game information about speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events about which game designers want players to be aware. It is a higher-bandwidth haptic information channel than exists in any other consumer product that we know of. As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.
But wait: There’s more! A high-resolution touch-screen in the centre of the controller also doubles as a button when it’s not being used to provide an infinite number of player actions.
There are 16 buttons on the Steam Controller, and you can access half of them (including two on the back) without having to move your hands from their natural resting position. You can create – and share – your own bindings for your favourite games, or pick from a list of the most popular configurations.
Because none of the games in your Steam library were built with the Steam Controller in mind – and they’ll all work with the new device – there’s also a Legacy Mode built in, so the controller presents itself simply as keyboard/mouse.
The Steam Controller is about to enter beta testing – with the same criteria as the Steam Machines – a series of prototype beta units will be shipped out to super-keen gamers before the end of the year. For developers, the API will be made available in the same timeframe, so indie devs can start working on incorporating the new controller.