Gabe Newell confirms Linux-based Steam Box, reveals Valve’s controller and mobile plans

Steam Box prototype

Steam Box prototype

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Valve boss Gabe Newell has confirmed that the Steam-optimised mini PC announced at CES earlier this week is not the Steam Box. The company plans to release its own Linux-based PC, designed for the living room but capable of serving content to any screen in the house. Newell also shed some light on Valve’s plans for controllers, as well as an entry into the mobile market.

Speaking to The Verge at CES in Las Vegas, where Valve is meeting hardware partners, Newell admitted that the Xi3 mini PC, codenamed Piston, would not be the only thirdparty system available; manufacturers will be free to make what they want. Valve, though, is focusing on building “a thing that’s quiet and focuses on high performance and quiet and appropriate form factors.”That will mean a fixed spec – in terms of CPU and GPU at least. Despite Newell’s well-known dislike for Windows 8, and Valve’s recent work on Linux, there will be no fixed operating system.

“We’ll come out with our own and we’ll sell it to consumers by ourselves,” he said. “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.”

For as long as it has been rumoured, Steam Box has been assumed to be Valve’s play for the living room, viewed as the next major battleground for tech companies. It appears it’s much more than that. “The Steam Box will also be a server. Any PC can serve multiple monitors… 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, then, of the interface? Patent filings last year showed that Valve had been working on controller designs, with staff blog posts revealing research into wearable computing and biometric feedback. Newell admits Valve’s tinkering has put it off the concept of motion control, describing Wii Sports as a “pinnacle” that has never been bettered. Instead, the company is focused on what Newell describes as “kind of super-boring stuff all around latency and precision… We think that, unlike motion input where we kind of struggled to come up with ideas, [there’s potential in] biometrics. We have lots of ideas. Also, gaze tracking. We think gaze tracking is going to be super-important.”

Valve is looking at touch controls, too, with one of its controller designs sporting a touchpad, though Newell says his engineers are “trying to figure out where that’s useful”. If it doesn’t work out, it’ll be removed to keep costs down – but you suspect Newell hopes it does. Steam Box is called Bigfoot internally; another project, codenamed Littlefoot, is based in an entirely new market for Valve: mobile.

“[Littlefoot] says, ‘What do we need to do to extend this to the mobile space?” We 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.”

The endless flow of patent filings, job ads, rumours and blog posts portrays Valve’s staff as endless tinkerers, empowered by that freeform, bossless corporate structure, trying their hand at whatever takes their fancy whenever they like. There’s a grain of truth in that, we suspect, but while there may be no managers dictating what happens day to day there is evidently a very specific goal towards which everyone works. Perhaps the initial plan was simply to get Steam into the living room, but in the process of working out how to do that, Valve has created not just a box for under the television , but also for the whole house. It’s made a new UI in Big Picture mode. It’s looking at new ways of controlling games, not just on the TV, but mobile devices too. It’s a lot of work for a relatively small company. Will it work?

“The internet is super-smart,” Newell says in closing. “If you do something that is cool, that’s actually worth people’s time, then they’ll adopt it. If you do something that’s not cool and sucks, you can spend as many marketing dollars as you want, they just won’t.”

Image credit: The Verge