Valve’s Final Trick Is a Steam Controller with Touchpads Instead of Thumbsticks

It's like the lovechild of a PS Vita and Nintendo DS.

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The third shoe in Valve’s weeklong announcement trifecta, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t as I’d guessed and hoped — a lineup of triple-A Linux game developers — but it’s definitely intriguing: a Steam Controller.

Not just any controller, mind you, but a 16-button, beveled, ebony boomerang-like gamepad that looks (and sounds) a little like the lovechild of a PS Vita and Nintendo DS, where the left and right spaces you’d normally spy thumbsticks have been supplanted by circular trackpads.

Let that sink in: circular trackpads. Valve describes it as “A new way to play your entire Steam library from the sofa.”

Indeed it would be, though it’s perhaps not entirely new for those of you who remember what it was like to play Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo DS, using the bottom half’s trackpad in lieu of a thumbstick to maneuver Mario around that game’s full-3D environs.

Still, in all my time investigating haptic technology — and I’ve seen all kinds of stuff — I’ve never encountered a gaming input that looked quite like this: dual, circle-shaped, “high resolution” and clickable trackpads with concentric embossed inner circles, presumably “guides” to help your thumbs gauge where they’re at in relation to what you’re doing onscreen. On the announcement page, Valve says it considered input to be its “biggest missing link,” writing:

We realized early on that our goals required a new kind of input technology — one that could bridge the gap from the desk to the living room without compromises. So we spent a year experimenting with new approaches to input and we now believe we’ve arrived at something worth sharing and testing with you.

In theory, given my distaste for touch interfaces when it comes to fine motor control in a game, putting touchpads underneath your thumbs seems like a bad idea, say you’re playing something like Half-Life 2 or Counter-Strike, where you have to be painstakingly precise. But Valve’s claiming the resolution here is comparable to that of a desktop mouse. There’s no way to know what that means without taking this thing for a spin, but Valve goes on to make bold claims about the sensory fidelity:

Whole genres of games that were previously only playable with a keyboard and mouse are now accessible from the sofa. RTS games. Casual, cursor-driven games. Strategy games. 4x space exploration games. A huge variety of indie games. Simulation titles. And of course, Euro Truck Simulator 2.

In addition, games like first-person shooters that are designed around precise aiming within a large visual field now benefit from the trackpads’ high resolution and absolute position control.

If that’s right and just as it sounds, it could well be revolutionary — an interface that finally bridges the chasm between gamepads and the keyboard/mouse combo. We’ll see. In the meantime, speculating as a pianist who thinks a great deal about his fingers, holding your hands palm-up and using your thumbs is very different from using the entire hand and arm to maneuver a mouse pointer, palm-down.

But then the dual touchpads are just the start. Valve’s employing a haptic feedback system (think “rumble,” but far more advanced) in each of the touchpads that the company describes as a “super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators … capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.”

That, according to Valve, means much more than simply delivering, as the disgraced anti-games activist Jack Thompson once put it, “a pleasurable jolt and vibration”:

This haptic capability provides a vital channel of information to the player – delivering in-game information about speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events about which game designers want players to be aware. It is a higher-bandwidth haptic information channel than exists in any other consumer product that we know of. As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.

There’s more. The Steam Controller comes with a “high-resolution touchscreen,” allowing Valve to pipe in different feedback overlays (think different buttons or panels of buttons), adapted to whatever game — a page clearly taken from Razer’s still-conceptual Switchblade gaming micro-laptop. Valve says it can take the form of a scrolling menu, a radial dial, offer up ancillary information and so forth — sort of like Nintendo’s DS, in other words. You can also employ the entire screen as a single button, and Valve means an actual button here — the entire screen is clickable, as in “push down and it clicks,” say you’re a developer and you want to use the thing as an input that ignores accidental swipes or taps.

Don’t worry, Valve says it’ll still support traditional input methods, explicitly the keyboard/mouse combo, and, I’m assuming, gamepads of more traditional vintage. That, and the company calls the Steam Controller “hackable,” so there’s a roll-your-own angle in accord with the whole “build-your-own” Steam Machine one:

Just as the Steam Community and Workshop contributors currently deliver tremendous value via additions to software products on Steam, we believe that they will meaningfully contribute to the design of the Steam Controller. We plan to make tools available that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

The first batch of slightly nerfed controllers — no touchscreen, no wireless — will go out with the 300 forthcoming beta Steam Machines later this year.

What’s next? Valve says it promises to divulge more information soon, and that we should look for Steam Machine prototype specs next week.