Valve has just spent the entire week laying the groundwork for an upcoming "battle of the living rooms". Steam's creator seems poised to create a new category of devices, which they refer to as "Steam Machines". But for as many announcements that have been made, there have been some fantastically large gaps, which leaves observers wondering what exactly comes next.
Since next to no technical detail about Steam Machines was actually released this week, it's up in the air what actually separates a Steam Machine from a console, or for that matter, a PC. Valve is working with hardware manufacturers, this much is known, but what isn't yet understood is whether or not Valve is also issuing guidelines of what will and will not constitute a Steam Machine. It's interesting to note that PCs with SteamOS installed are not being called Steam Machines, but simply boxes with SteamOS on them.
If Valve is dictating, at least to some degree, what constitutes a Steam Machine in terms of hardware, then a Steam Machine is for all intents and purposes a console. The 3DO had a wide variety of manufacturers, and was built around a spec - no one called that a PC, it was a console.
If you call the Steam Machine a console, comparisons start to become quite straightforward. There are launch dates, game libraries, innovations in controllers, raw specs, marketplaces. Everything makes sense in that context. That means that for video games, there will be four major players in the living room space - Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, and Valve.
Valve wants to center the discussion around games and controller innovations. And it's pretty clear that they're trying to play to their strengths in this regard. The PC, even with Big Picture enabled, has been a bit of a non-starter in the living room. There are entire game genres that to date, have simply refused to play without a keyboard and mouse. Valve's new controller hopes to bypass that complaint. Valve today announced a new controller for living room play of PC games. The Steam Controller is a touchpad centric controller, with a rather unusual button layout (see picture). There are 16 buttons total on the controller, arranged by most frequent use. Eight of the buttons can be pressed without lifting a hand from the touchpads on the controller. Every game in the Steam library, even if they don't support controllers natively, apparently supports the Steam Controller.
The dual trackpad design is said to allow the fidelity of a mouse, in a controller shape. Each track pad is clickable. The new controller also offers enhanced haptic feedback ("super rumble" if you will), to make up for the "soft touch" track pad not offering physical feedback mechanisms to the player. Here's what Valve has to say about the haptic feedback used in the Steam Controller:
...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... As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.
See below the controller picture for more information -
The Steam Controller has a high resolution touch screen in the middle of the controller. Like the control pads / touch pads, the screen on Valve's Steam Controller is also clickable. The screen will allow the controller to support every game in the Steam catalog.
According to Valve, the new controller is meant to be "hackable" - although there's no exact word on what that will mean on the hardware side of the equation, it's pretty clear that there will be API support to allow for customization of the touchscreen and haptic feedback. It's also not entirely clear how many publisher / game developers have committed their resources to do customizations for their games (Euro Truck Simulator was mentioned in the announcement).
Read on -- How to Steam Machines and SteamOS play into this new living room environment?