Valve reveals Steam Controller with touch-screen, haptic feedback

Half-Life studio announces proprietary controller; will work with all past, present, and future games; described as "high-precision" with "low-latency performance."

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Portal and Half-Life studio Valve today announced the Steam Controller, which features a touch-screen and haptic feedback. The announcement is the third from Valve this week, following SteamOS on Monday and Steam Machines on Wednesday.

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"We set out with a singular goal: bring the Steam experience, in its entirety, into the living room. We knew how to build the user interface, we knew how to build a machine, and even an operating system. But that still left input--our biggest missing link," Valve said. "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."

According to Valve, the Steam Controller will work with all past, present, and future games on Steam, including those that were not built with controller support. Valve can achieve this by "fooling" the older games into thinking they are being played with mouse and keyboard.

In explaining its design philosophy for the Steam Controller, Valve said traditional gamepads "force us to accept compromises."

"The Steam controller offers a new and, we believe, vastly superior control scheme, all while enabling you to play from the comfort of your sofa," Valve said. "Built with high-precision input technologies and focused on low-latency performance, the Steam controller is just what the living room ordered."

According to Valve, the most prominent elements of the Steam Controller are its dual circular trackpads that players will manipulate using their thumbs. The trackpads are clickable, turning the entire surface into a button.

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"The trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers," Valve said. "Steam gamers, who are used to the input associated with PCs, will appreciate that the Steam Controller's resolution approaches that of a desktop mouse."

Valve said entire genres of games that were once playable only through keyboard and mouse are now accessible in the living room thanks to the new controller. The developer specifically called out real-time strategy games, casual games, and cursor-driven games as examples.

First-person shooters will also benefit from the Steam Controller's "high resolution and absolute position control," Valve said.

Valve explained that trackpads are inherently less physical than thumbsticks, so the company sought out a way to "add more physicality to the experience." Part of this advancement in physicality is expanding on the "rumble" feature found in contemporary controllers forward.

To that end, the Steam Controller features a "new generation of super-precise haptic feedback," Valve said. This includes making use of linear resonant actuators, described as "small, strong, weighted electro-magnets" that are attached to each of the trackpads.

"They are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement," Valve said.

"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," the company added. "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."

Another new feature of the Steam Controller is its touch-enabled surface, backed by a "high-resolution screen." According to Valve, this surface is "critical" to achieving the input's primary goal: to support all games in the Steam library. The screen allows for an "infinite number" of discrete actions, Valve said.

The entire screen itself is also clickable, making it a single large button.

"So actions are not invoked by a simple touch; they instead require a click. This allows a player to touch the screen, browse available actions, and only then commit to the one they want," Valve said. "Players can swipe through pages of actions in games where that's appropriate. When programmed by game developers using our API, the touchscreen can work as a scrolling menu, a radial dial, provide secondary info like a map or use other custom input modes we haven’t thought of yet."

As a means to avoid forcing players to continually jump back and forth between screens, the Steam Controller is integrated with Steam so that when a player touches the controller screen, its display is overlayed on top of the game they're playing. Thus, the player never needs to divert their eyes from the action, Valve said.

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There are a total of 16 buttons on the Steam Controller, half of which are accessible to the player without requiring them to lift their thumbs from the trackpads. This includes two buttons on the back.

"All controls and buttons have been placed symmetrically, making left or right handedness switchable via a software config checkbox," Valve said.

The Steam Controller also boasts "shared configurations," technology that will assist in supporting the entire catalog of Steam games, Valve said.

"We have built in a legacy mode that allows the controller to present itself as a keyboard and mouse," Valve said. "The Steam Community can use the configuration tool to create and share bindings for their favorite games. Players can choose from a list of the most popular configurations."

Lastly, Valve said the Steam Controller was designed from the onset to be hackable. The company will make tools available in the future that will allow users to participate in "all aspects of the experience," from industrial design to electrical engineering.

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"We can't wait to see what you come up with," Valve said.

Those who are selected for the Steam Machines beta will receive a Steam Controller, though Valve said the first units out the door will not include a touchscreen and will not be wireless. Four buttons will be used in place of the touchscreen, and these units will require a USB cable.

Valve also confirmed that the Steam Controller will be compatible with any version of Steam, meaning players will not need a Steam Machine to use the controller.

For developers interested in supporting the Steam Controller in their games, Valve will release the first version of its API to creators on the same day that prototype controllers ship later this year.

Pricing information for the Steam Controller was not announced.

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