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Valve announces Steam Controller

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Valve has designed a unique input device for computers: the Steam Controller, the company announced today.

Built over the course of the past year, the Steam Controller features no analog sticks; in their place sit two high-resolution circular trackpads for the player's thumbs. The pads can be clicked, which allows them to also function as buttons.

"The trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers," reads the announcement post. "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."

According to Valve, the Steam Controller's trackpads are sensitive enough to allow entire genres of games that have, until now, been playable only with a keyboard and mouse — titles such as strategy games, simulations and other cursor-driven experiences — to be played on a couch with a controller. And games like first-person shooters will benefit from the finer control that the trackpads offer, Valve claims.


What trackpads don't provide, however, is physical feedback. To remedy that issue, Valve built the Steam Controller with what it characterizes as a very precise level of haptic feedback that goes beyond the comparatively simple vibration mechanism that's common to existing gamepads. The Steam Controller's linear resonant actuators — one attached to each trackpad — are "capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude and direction of movement." The devices can also function as speakers.

the face is dominated by the dual trackpads

While the face of the Steam Controller is dominated by the dual trackpads, the center hosts another touch-based input device: a high-resolution touchscreen. Like the touchpad on the PlayStation 4's DualShock 4, the touch surface on the Steam Controller can be clicked in as a button; unlike the DualShock 4's touchpad, it is actually a display. The touchscreen can be used for game elements such as pages of actions, a radial menu, a scrolling menu and a map. Users must click the screen to make a selection, and while they're using the screen, its display will be overlaid on the television screen, so they don't have to look at two screens at once.

The Steam Controller does feature buttons. There are 16 of them, half of which are accessible without having to move one's thumbs from the trackpads; two of the buttons are on the back of the controller. The entire controller is symmetrical, so left-handed gamers will be able to use the device just as easily as right-handed gamers with a simple control flip enabled in software.

the Steam Controller fools games into thinking a keyboard and mouse are attached

Even though the Steam Controller is a gamepad without analog sticks and traditional face buttons, it will be compatible with games designed for controllers as well as titles built for keyboard and mouse controls. Valve achieved this through a legacy mode that fools games into thinking a keyboard and mouse are attached. Players will be able to choose from popular configurations and share their own. And the Steam Controller is designed to be fully hackable, allowing users to contribute to the design of the device.

Earlier this week, Valve announced SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system designed for big-screen gaming, as well as Steam Machines, the living room-oriented gaming computers that will run SteamOS. Valve has built its own prototype unit and will send 300 of them to Steam users this year for a hardware beta test, in advance of the 2014 launch of Steam Machines built by a variety of third-party partners. The initial run of 300 beta units will include a prototype of the Steam Controller that lacks a touchscreen and wireless connectivity.

Gabe Newell, managing director of Valve, said during the Consumer Electronics Show this past January that the company was working on unique input devices that use biometric data. The following month, Valve reportedly laid off a number of employees from its hardware engineering department. The Steam Controller is compatible not just with Steam Machines, but with any computer running Steam.


According to Valve, "hundreds" of games already run on SteamOS, and announcements are on the way about more AAA titles coming to the platform in 2014. Nvidia said this week that it has been working with Valve to improve the functionality and performance of SteamOS, a collaboration through which Nvidia engineers have helped Valve to port its Source engine to Linux and reduce input lag in SteamOS.

Valve plans to go into more detail on this week's announcements in the Steam Universe community group. The company will post hardware specifications for its Steam Machine prototype next week.

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