Valve's Steam Controller replaces analog sticks with touchpads


— 1:12 PM on September 27, 2013

This has been a pretty momentous week for Valve. On Monday, the firm unveiled SteamOS. On Wednesday, it announced Steam machines and began to enlist beta testers. And now, the company has made its third and final announcement for the week. Say hello to the Steam Controller:

The product of a year of research and experimentation, the Steam Controller is, in a nutshell, a gamepad designed to make PC games playable from the couch. And Valve isn't just targeting shooters and console ports. The company claims the Steam Controller works with everything from real-time strategy games to "casual, cursor-driven" titles. Older titles will be supported, as well, thanks to a "legacy mode" that "allows the controller to present itself as a keyboard and mouse."

To make even cursor-driven games like RTSes playable, Valve has made the Steam Controller somewhat different from console gamepads. Instead of analog sticks or d-pads, the Valve controller features two circular touchpads. The touchpads have an input resolution that "approaches that of a desktop mouse"—and exceeds that of traditional analog sticks, the company claims. The touchpads are even clickable, much like the ClickPads found on some laptops. As you can see in the picture above, the touchpads will also have two concentric ridges, which should make it relatively straighforward to keep your thumbs in the right position.

Additionally, Valve says it's implemented a "new generation of super-precise haptic feedback" using "dual linear resonant actuators." Translation: there are weighted electromagnets strapped under each touchpad. Valve explains that the electromagnets "deliver a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement." The company adds that the resulting haptic feedback can be used to communicate "speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events about which game designers want players to be aware."

The third piece of the puzzle is a high-res touch screen, which will sit between the two touchpads. The screen will respond to touch and click input, and Valve will provide an API for game developers to harness it. Interestingly, Valve seems to be saying that using the touch screen won't require looking down; rather, the screen's contents will be overlaid on top of whatever game you're playing. I'm not sure why the screen isn't just a third touchpad, then, but I suppose touch screens on controllers are all the rage these days. (Sony's PlayStation 4 gamepad will also have one.)

16 buttons will supplement the touchpads and touch screen. The buttons will be laid out symmetrically, so lefties and righties will get equal treatment, and Valve says eight of the buttons will be accessible without taking one's thumbs off the touchpads. Judging by this picture, there will be a couple of buttons on the back of the Steam Controller. Here's a sample button config for Portal 2, for reference:

Valve hasn't announced pricing or availability for the Steam Controller yet, but it says folks who are selected to participate in the Steam machine beta will also receive a prototype Steam Controller. (In case you missed Wednesday's announcement, you can sign up to participate through here.) The prototypes will differ from the final product somewhat: they won't be wireless, and they won't have a touch screen. Instead, four buttons will occupy the area between the touchpads.

To be honest, I expected something a little more groundbreaking than a spruced-up gamepad—maybe some sort of elaborate VR headset like the Oculus Rift. I suppose practical concerns must prevail, though. If Valve wants to bring Steam to the living room, then making games playable without a keyboard and mouse must come first. Oh well. I'll still be interested to see how comfortable (and accurate) those touchpads are in practice. It sounds like we might see variations on the example pictured above, too. Valve says it designed the Steam Controller "from the ground up to be hackable," and it will provide tools to let users "participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering."

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