Like the hardcore gossiping that goes down between old women clutching cups of tea like they’re made of solid gold the internet was buzzing yesterday as people began to report that Valve had apparently unveiled their rumoured “Steam Box” at CES, codenamed Piston and being co-developed by Xi3.
Except that the Piston isn’t Valve’s eagerly anticipated Steam Box, it’s just Xi3’s new prototype modular PC design, based upon their existing Xi3 X7A. And I don’t say that to be mean, because Xi3’s design looks pretty sweet at the moment, a small modular computer that can fit neatly beside your TV and appeal to the console market who enjoy simply being able to plug it in and get playing. The Piston will feature some pretty good specifications and upgradeable hardware. Of course at the moment you can already just buy a PC and connect it up your TV, but if the Piston offers competitive prices and the ease of Steam we could be looking at something very impressive that will attract many gamers. However, it’s important to note that the X7a sells for $999.
But back to the topic at hand. The confusion over the Piston stems from the fact that Valve have partnered up with Xi3, and have even provided some of the funding for their new device. Valve are indeed present at CES, but the booth they have there is solely for meeting up with various partner companies to talk about Steam-powered and optimised hardware, such as the Piston. In essence, Piston is a Steam Box, but not the Steam Box. It’s designed to be optimised for use with Steam. Gabe Newell of Valve confirmed in an exclusive interview with the Verge that: “We’ll come out with our own 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. This is not some locked box by any stretch of the imagination. We also think that a controller that has higher precision and lower latency is another interesting thing to have”
High precision controllers? Now that certain sounds interesting. “I think you’ll see controllers coming from us that use a lot of biometric data. 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.” Gabe told The Verge. After briefly talking about why Valve aren’t interested in motion control at the moment, Gabe went back to the biometrics: “Biometrics on the other hand 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.”
Gabe revealed that you will indeed be able to surf the web on Valve’s box: “You can fire up a web browser, you can do whatever you want.”
And finally another bit of interesting information was tossed to The Verge when they asked Gabe if he envisioned a Steam Box connecting to other screens outside of the living room. He replied, “The Steam Box will also be a server. Any PC can serve multiple monitors, so over time, the next-generation (post-Kepler) you can have one GPU that’s serving up eight simultaneous game calls. 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.”
Interesting stuff indeed. Valve are currently promising that they’ll be offering up more information to the press and public in the coming months, presumably about their partnerships with companies like Xi3 and hopefully about their own hardware. What’s even more interesting is that Valve almost seem to be creating competition for themselves. In a statement to Polygon they said, “Valve will be at CES to meet with hardware and content developers in our booth space. We are bringing multiple custom (hardware) prototypes as well as some off-the-shelf PCs to our CES meetings”. He further clarified, describing these machines as, “low-cost, high-performance designs for the living room that are great candidates for Steam and Big Picture”.
So, Valve are busy indeed, then, not only planning on creating their very own hardware, but also partnering up with other companies to expand Steam as well. I look forward to hearing from them in the coming months and getting some more clarification on all this.
And remember to go check out The Verge’s interview with Gabe Newell as it’s a fantastic read: