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Steam Box: Everything We Know So Far

David Lynch

Features


Valve's Steam Box has become a very real and incredibly exciting proposition, but what exactly do we know about it? Let's take a look...

Published on Jan 9, 2013

Steam Box Is Real And It’s Coming

Rumour: Less of rumour and more of a fact, Gabe Newelll confirms to the industry that the Steam Box is real and more importantly, it’s on the way. (Source: The Verge)

That’s right, it’s finally happening. After years of speculation and rumour, Valve CEO Gabe Newell has confirmed that Steam Box is in the works and it could be under your TV as sooner than you think. It’s not often that Valve opens its doors and drops a bomb quite as big as that, but that’s exactly what happened when The Verge sat down to chat to Valve’s head recently.

"We’ll come out with our own," explained Newell of the Steam Box, "and we’ll sell it to consumers by ourselves. That’ll be a Linux box, [and] if you want to install Windows you can. We’re not going to make it hard.”

Without a traditional reveal with pictures of the hardware and games already in development being shown off, Valve has once again approached things in its own way and this does make it harder to quantify the impact the Steam Box will have on the gaming industry.

Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have been trying to one-up each other all the while ignoring what the PC platform is doing and more importantly, what Valve has been achieving with Steam. This could be the wake-up call that really shakes up the game’s industry and makes the next-gen very interesting indeed.

Steam Box’s Codename Is ‘Bigfoot’

Rumour: The current internal working title for Valve’s Steam Box is ‘Bigfoot’ which refers to the living room console and ‘Littlefoot’ which refers to the mobile and tablet arm. (Source: VG247)

It’s always easier to believe in a secret console project when you have an in-development working title to cling to. For months now we’ve been making do with just the Durango and the Orbis, but now we also have the Bigfoot.

From initial rumours regarding Valve’s first console (although, really, that seems like a slightly misleading title for what Valve is actually working on) Bigfoot refers to the living room box that will connect to your TV or monitor. If the speculation is correct, through Bigfoot Valve will be able to put Steam on your big screen and make you realise why Steam Sales are the best thing ever.

Conversely, Littlefoot refers to how users will be able to interact with Steam and their games while they’re out of the house. Littlefoot is apparently Valve’s plans for how we’ll be able to access games/content on our mobile or tablet devices.

While it’s easy to look right now and see that what the rumours are suggesting is an awful lot like what we already enjoy as gamers, Valve has a way of showing the industry how to do things properly. Right now, these are just working titles and they only offer us the merest of hints at what Valve is really working on.

Steam Box Won’t Launch In 2013

Rumour: Steam Box won’t launch in 2013. That is all. (Source: CVG)

Talk of Valve entering into the console race has been mere speculation for years, but the last few months have seen the speculation and rumours turn to genuine curiosity as it seemed ever more likely. And now that Gabe Newell has confirmed that Valve is indeed working on its own hardware, it’s rather disappointing to discover that we won’t be getting to play with it any time soon.

According to a recent interview, a 2013 launch is definitely off the cards. "With regards to the Steam Box news - there has been a lot of things that we are working on getting Steam into the living room, and are planning for a hardware box, but we have no current plans to announce anything in 2013."   

Knowing that Valve will skip 2013 in its plans to bring the Steam Box to market gives us a much clearer idea how the arrival of a new console manufacturer on the scene could upset the apple cart. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo now have at least a year before Valve begins breathing down their respective necks.

With rumours heavily suggesting that we could see the next-gen Xbox in 2013 and the PS4 in 2014, Valve’s Steam Box will be wading into a battle that’s in full swing. How the masses react to yet another new console will be interesting and at the forefront of how Valve decides to market the Steam Box.

It’ll have to be comparable in features and specs, too, if it is to have a chance of competing with what we’re still hoping will be incredibly powerful next-gen consoles.

Steam Box Could Use Augmented And Virtual Reality

Rumour: We’re probably reaching too far into the future with this, but with Valve’s R&D department working on augmented and virtual reality (not to mention, wearable computing) we’re hoping this has something to do with the Steam Box. (Source: NowGamer)

Michael Abrash, the veteran programmer leading wearable computing R&D at Valve has revealed why he favours virtual reality over augmented reality - for now.

Valve is all set to develop wearable computing for the masses, with public testing planned for some time next year.

In a new (and long) blog post, Valve's Michael Abrash has revealed his thought process behind whether to focus the company's R&D resources on Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality.



Hypothesising both how products such as Google Glass may shape our lives in the next few years, and also whether AR or VR should be the utlimate goal for technologists, Abrash reasons that virtual reality is at the point of improvement, while "true AR" (ie fully-immersive, all-encompassing glasses-based AR).

"In the near term, though, VR hardware will be shipping, and because the requirements are more limited, it should improve more rapidly than AR hardware," wrote Abrash.

"Also, it’s easier to adapt existing AAA titles to VR, and while VR won’t really take off until there are great games that built around what VR can do, AAA titles should get VR off the ground and attract a hard-core gaming audience. And a lot of the work done on VR will benefit AR as well."

Valve recently endorsed Palmer Lucky's Oculus Rift VR headset.
"My personal opinion (which is not necessarily Valve’s) is that it makes sense to do VR now, and push it forward as quickly as possible, but at the same time to continue research into the problems unique to AR, with an eye to tilting more and more toward AR over time as it matures," reasoned Abrash.

"As I said, it’s not the definitive answer we’d all like, but it’s where my thinking has led me."

So, is Valve more likely to look at a VR headset in the near future? We;ll know more when the company begins testing its hardware next year.

The Steam Box’s Controllers Will Use Biometrics

Rumour: Unimpressed with traditional controllers and motion control, Valve’s Steam Box will take a unique approach to controller design and even use Biometric data. (Source: The Verge)

Control pads have remained as the traditional in-put for gaming for years now and they haven’t really changed since the PS2 days. We’re ignoring motion control as it’s really debatable that it’s offered anything other than a mild distraction from the control pad despite Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all jumping on the bandwagon.

Valve is taking a different approach and with rumours hinting that it has been tinkering away with wearable technology, virtual reality and biometric data.  

“I think you’ll see controllers coming from us that use a lot of biometric data,” explained Newell to The Verge. “Maybe the motion stuff is just failure of imagination on our part, but we’re a lot more excited about biometrics as an input method.”

“Biometrics is essentially adding more communication bandwidth between the game and the person playing it, especially in ways the player isn’t necessarily conscious of. Biometrics gives us more visibility. Also, gaze tracking. We think gaze tracking is going to turn out to be super important.”

So, how developers and players interact while playing is going to be more important than the binary inputs made available by motion control. Tracking where players are looking could result in all kinds of fascinating new gameplay applications, but ultimately, it comes down to what kinds of tools are afforded to developers with the Steam Box.

Newell has also described how Valve is attempting to make a controller that limits latency and lag while also pushing precision control. “On the controller side, the stuff we’re thinking of is kind of super boring stuff all around latency and precision. There’s no magic there, everybody understands when you say "I want something that’s more precise and is less laggy."  

Valve are approaching this from two different design standpoints; as game developers and as fledgling hardware developers. It’ll be interesting to see what ideas eventually make it through to completion.

Steam Box’s Games Will Themselves Be Platforms

Rumour: More and more PC games rely on user generated content and ‘pro players’ to keep their experiences engaging. Valve is attempting to work out ways in which the Steam Box can utilise this idea across an entire console. (Source: The Verge)

Another idea hinted at in The Verge’s interview with Gabe Newell is the idea that the Steam Box will provide players with opportunities to become part of a game’s system. In the same way that EVE players are able to manipulate the in-game stock market or World Of Warcraft players selling desirable items, the Steam Box could include ways for players to do this across its portfolio of games.

“So now we’re in this strange world where we have people who are using the Steam workshop who are making $500,000 per year building items for other customers,” explained Newell. “In other words, there’s this notion that user-generated content has to be an important part of our thinking.”
     
Anticipating how players will interact with a game once its out in the wild is incredibly important and one of the reasons why PC gamers still find themselves playing older games such as World Of Warcraft. This way of thinking brings with it a layer of freedom afforded to the player that could make the Steam Box’s games standout next to the expected traditional titles of the Next Box or PS4.

Players want to be able to contribute and engage with the community and the Steam Box could make that a core feature.

The Steam Box Will Also Be A Server

Rumour: In order to offer the features Valve has planned for the Steam Box, the device itself will also be server allowing it to stream content to satellite devices. (Source: The Verge)

Gabe Newell has confirmed that the Steam Box will also act as server and in the future could see multiple players all playing games on separate screens.

With more and more devices arriving that take advantage of technology that allows players to stream content from their PCs (Shield is the obvious one that springs to mind), Newell has confirmed that the Steam Box could take things to a logical conclusion.

Right now, Newell has admitted that Valve is working with Nvidia on a way of making this kind of multi-device, multi-screen use realistic.

Big Picture Mode Is Just The Start

Rumour: Valve recently revealed Big Picture Mode, but this is its first steps towards making Steam (and eventually the Steam Box) an integral part of your gaming diet. (Source: NowGamer)

Valve is launching a 'public test' for Steam's Big Picture user interface today that will give gamers the chance to use Steam and any downloaded games from the service on their TVs.

Using Big Picture Mode, Steam will offer a TV-friendly interface that makes it much easier to navigate on a big screen and it will ensure any downloaded games will be appropriately displayed.

Big Picture Mode was announced early last year and the beta will give Valve the chance to fine-tune its new service before launching it worldwide and making Steam available to living rooms as well as desktop computers. It could put Steam into direct competition with console services like Xbox Live and PSN as well as streamlining the existing PC and Mac service.

What’s important about the introduction of Big Picture mode is the ways in which it will pave the way for what users expect from the Steam Box.

“With Big Picture Mode we’re trying to answer the question: "how can we maximize a content developers investment?" explained Newell. "It’s not a lot easier for me to build content that spans running on a laptop, running in a living room, and running on the desktop, as opposed to completely re-writing your game."

 

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