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Valve's Newell opens up about his 'Steam Box' plans

Valve's Gabe Newell has given an in-depth rundown of what we can expect from the company in the near future, ranging from its home console plans, to how the Steam store is going to evolve over the coming years.

Mike Rose, Blogger

January 9, 2013

4 Min Read

This week, numerous living room PC "consoles" have been announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show 2013 in Las Vegas, including the Nvidia Shield, and the "Piston" from modular PC developer Xi3. The latter really got the internet in a tizzy, as it was revealed that it's being backed by Valve, and even being displayed at Valve's CES booth. As it turns out, the Piston is just one living room PC device that Valve is backing -- and Valve also has its own devices in the works, known internally as "Bigfoot" -- or as "Steam Box" to the outside world -- and "Littlefoot," a mobile device. In a candid interview with The Verge, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell gave an in-depth rundown of what we can expect from the company in the near future, ranging from its home console plans, to how the Steam store is going to evolve over the coming years.

On Valve's own "Steam Box"

Newell sees the new living room PC revolution as different levels of hardware: some streaming devices, some essentially PCs as we know them. Valve will exert some control on this market, though Newell was vague about what that means. The salient fact is this: "We'll come out with our own and we'll sell it to consumers by ourselves," he adds. "That'll be a Linux box, [and] if you want to install Windows you can. We're not going to make it hard. This is not some locked box by any stretch of the imagination." Said Newell, "let's build a thing that’s quiet and focuses on high performance, and quiet, and appropriate form factors." The Steam Box will also act as a server, he notes. "So you could have one PC and eight televisions and eight controllers and everybody getting great performance out of it. We're used to having one monitor, or two monitors -- now we're saying let's expand that a little bit."

What you can expect from the "Steam Box" controller

Newell says that Valve has "struggled for a long time to try to think of ways to use motion input and we really haven't [found any]." With that in mind, the company is currently considering latency and precision as key factors in how the Steam Box controller will play out -- although it's also looking at how biometrics can factor into play. "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," he says. "Motion just seems to be a way of [thinking] of your body as a set of communication channels. Your hands, and your wrist muscles, and your fingers are actually your highest bandwidth -- so to try to talk to a game with your arms is essentially saying, 'Oh, we're going to stop using Ethernet and go back to 300 baud dial-up.'" Biometrics, he notes, give developers more visibility that motion control, adding more communication between the game and person playing it. "Also, gaze tracking," he adds. "We think gaze tracking is going to turn out to be super important."

The fascinating future of the Steam store

"We tend to think of Steam as tools for content developers and tools for producers," Newell says of the behemoth online store. "We're just always thinking: how do we want to make content developers' lives better and users' lives a lot better?" Where Valve is headed with the Steam store may surprise developers and gamers alike, and the future sounds rather exciting. "Right now there's one Steam store," he says. "We think that the store should actually be more like user generated content. So, anybody should be able to create a store, and it should be about extra entertainment value. Our view has always been that we should build tools for customers and tools for partners." Newell is talking editorial filters, network APIs, multiple storefronts and services -- "Our view is that, in the same way users are critical in a multiplayer experience, like the fellow next to you is critical to your enjoyment, we should figure out how we can help users find people that are going to make their game experiences better," he notes. Any and all stores will be welcome, adds Newell.

Valve's plans for the mobile space

The Steam Box has a different name internally. "Bigfoot" applies to the home console version, but there's also a mobile version called "Littlefoot." Says Newell, "[Littlefoot] says, 'What do we need to do to extend this to the mobile space?' Our approach will be pretty similar. We also think there's a lot that needs to be done in the tablet and mobile space to improve input for games. I understand Apple's [approach]; all the way back in '83 when I met Jobs for the first time, he was so super anti-gaming." One of Valve's current controller designs includes a touchpad, and Newell says that the company is still trying to figure out what to do with it. "We don't want to waste people's money by just throwing in a touchpad," he adds. "Once we understand what the role is of multitouch in these kind of applications then it’s easy to say you can use your phone for it."

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