Valve Software, developers of series such as Half Life and Portal, has confirmed Internet rumors of a move to hardware production by announcing its intention to enter the console market in force with devices bearing Valve’s popular digital distribution platform, Steam. In an interview with The Verge, CEO Gabe Newell revealed many details about the plans surrounding the hardware and the future of Steam.
In addition to their own console, which will be an extremely open and modifiable setup, Valve has partnered with a number of different manufacturers to create a variety of devices tailored to running Steam in the living room and across the home. Planned features for Valve’s own box include running Linux as the base operating system, being open to modification and installation of other programs and operating systems and the ability to connect to multiple screens including mobile devices. Users will be able to access their favorite websites and applications such as Netflix or social media through the box. Any program that can run on a PC will be available to download. Customizability is an important factor.
“This is not some locked box by any stretch of the imagination,” Newell stated.
The prototype designs exhibited at the 2013 Consumer Entertainment Show range in size and shape, but the overall emphasis is on compactness and convenience. Xi3’s Piston is an especially sleek device designed to take advantage of Steam’s Big Picture mode, which optimizes the interface for use on televisions and other large screens. While the compactness may be an attractive feature to college students with limited space, the speculated price range of $500 to $1,000 may be a turn off on this particular model. Other manufacturers and Valve itself have yet to reveal their own devices or predictions for pricing.
In addition to the console itself, Valve is looking to innovate in controller technology as well. In standard controllers the company is looking to create controllers that are extremely precise and lag free for gamers, but Valve is also developing new methods for interacting with media.
Of motion recognition controls, Newell said, “We’ve struggled for a long time to try to think of ways to use motion input and we really haven’t [found any].”
Instead, the company is focusing on biometric input and wearable computing. Valve employee Michael Abrash discusses some of the plans for an augmented reality style controller and user interface in his blog Ramblings in Valve Time, posted April 13, 2012.
“The underlying trend as we’ve gone from desktops through laptops and notebooks to tablets is one of having computing available in more places, more of the time,” Abrash said. “The logical endpoint is computing everywhere.”
Microsoft Studios executive and industry veteran Phil Harrison cautions Valve on its plans, saying “Entering the hardware business is a really tough business; you have to have great fortitude… you have to have deep pockets and a very strong balance sheet.”
Valve will indeed be in a difficult position breaking ground in a market already controlled by three major companies. Even with the resources its revenue from Steam can provide, competition will be fierce not only from the likes of Microsoft and Sony, but also from the third-party developers whose own products will be in competition with Valve’s own. Still, Harrison welcomes the development as good for gaming overall.
“Any new entrant, without being specific to any company or brand or product, to the games industry is ultimately a good thing, because it helps validate, grow and enhance consumer excitement and consumer interest in our category,” Harrison said. “So, ultimately, it’s a win for everybody.”