Steam's interface looks like a curved screen in virtual reality. There are no fancy effects, no rooms to explore in order to launch games.
The SteamVR beta makes it appear as if you're in a generic environment looking at Steam running in Big Picture mode. That's it.
It's also another data point that suggests 2014 could be a big year for virtual reality. Developers have put out games and demos that operate in virtual reality since the release of the Oculus Rift development kit, but there are few tools available to launch each game without taking off the headset and interacting with a standard screen. User interface, the place you spend your time between games, is an unsolved problem.
Steam is, as of this writing, the only mainstream distribution platform with any kind of support for virtual reality. The implementation may be basic, but that still puts it a few light years ahead of everyone else. Valve wants to own the future, not just participate in it, and the beta of SteamVR released before the beginning of Steam Dev Days shows just how aggressive the company has grown in that regard.
Designing the road so that others may walk
Steam Dev Days, taking place Jan. 15-16 in Seattle, isn't open to the press. There will be no interviews given, and it's unlikely that there will be video or archives of the content shown. It's an off-the-record event where AMD, Intel, Nvidia, Oculus, Unity and yes, Valve itself will give talks and create bridges between the distribution service, the hardware and software that will drive Steam Machines, and the people who make the games that we play on the platform.
There are two major themes at the show. The first, and arguably most important, goal for Valve is to convince developers to take Linux, and by extension SteamOS, seriously as a platform for their games.
There is a panel about the basics of porting your game to Linux. There is a panel about moving your game to OpenGL. Nvidia will talk about reducing driver overhead. AMD will discuss its optimization and debugging tools and how to use them in Linux. The goal is to get developers started on Linux porting and development, and of course that means more games for SteamOS.
This isn't a small thing.
The first run of Steam Machines may not offer many benefits to PC gamers outside of the joy of being an early adopter, but Valve is playing a long game. Developer support is crucial if Valve wants its vision of a Windows-less gaming future to come to pass. SteamOS is free, but the real power in the platform, at least for Valve, is control over how games are sold and played.
Hardware manufacturers are likely overjoyed at the idea of selling pre-built systems using a free, flexible and, in many ways, open operating system.
Microsoft has nothing to fear today, but the idea that Valve, AMD, Nvidia and Intel are getting together with developers to push for a future without Windows should scare the living hell out of them as they peer into the future. Valve and Microsoft both want to own your living room, but the Xbox One is often a clunky, awkward device that tries to force you into Microsoft's ecosystem while limiting your media options. There is plenty of room for disruption.
The fact that Valve is trying to move into that market with Steam Machines and SteamOS, and the list of corporate friends that are helping developers understand the platform and its possibilities, should keep Microsoft up at night. This isn't a revolution, not yet, but powerful people with a lot of money are passing out the tech equivalent of muskets in the dead of night to prepare to overthrow the king.
Reality is virtual
While Steam Dev Days features panels that discuss Early Access and in-game economies, the other trend that's impossible to miss is virtual reality. Valve's Michael Abrash, who writes one of the best blogs about the technical issues in virtual reality, will share what the technology could be in two years.
Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR, will discuss best practices when porting games to virtual reality. Owlchemy Labs will talk about what they learned through the process of creating Aaaaaculus!, which was one of the first, and in my opinion best, of the commercially available Oculus Rift games.
There will likely be demos of the Crystal Cove prototype hardware, and plenty of networking with some of the best minds working in modern virtual reality. The retail version of the Oculus Rift hardware will likely be released in 2014, and Valve is doing everything it can to get developers interested in the technology while incorporating VR into its engines and existing games. Half-Life 2 on the Oculus Rift is already one of the coolest experiences one can have in modern gaming.
Powerful people with a lot of money are passing out the tech equivalent of muskets in the dead of night to prepare to overthrow the king
It's possible that virtual reality won't take off this year, or next year, or ever. It's a risky technology that has never lived up to expectation in the market, and it requires a large investment in terms of hardware, computing power and physical space on the part of the player. This is Valve's game, though: It's laying the tracks for a train that may or may not come, and having Steam operable in virtual reality already shows their dedication to the platform and the content that virtual reality enthusiasts will buy and play on it.
This is the power of Steam Dev Days: If virtual reality goes nowhere, Valve has lost very little; the company's structure is famously flat, and employees are encouraged to experiment with what's possible in these spaces. There is low risk in these experiments or in focusing on the technology during events. On the other hand, Valve is uniquely situated to go all-in if virtual reality does take off in the next year or two.
Other companies may be discussing what VR could mean for the gaming and hardware industry, but Valve is already putting pieces into place and investing in the technology. Valve is ready to pounce on any whiff of consumer interest in virtual reality, and there are few companies that will be able to compete.
Get on board, or get out of the way
This morning I've used Steam in virtual reality in my home, using my own Oculus Rift development kit. I've talked to a few developers who are going to these events, and they seem excited by the possibilities being offered.
Valve has often gone to developers to ask what they want and explore how to offer it, but now Valve is coming to them to explain that it wants Linux support, and to suggest that they look into virtual reality. It's very likely that the influential developers at the show will be happy to oblige.
Don't underestimate Valve's will, or its ability to shape the future into its own image. Steam Dev Days may look like a friendly series of talks on a number of issues, but the reality is that it presents a very specific blueprint for the future, and it's a future that Valve will be happy to own.