Valve has released details on the Steam Controller, seen above, the input device for their upcoming Steam Machines. What we see in the picture above is not the back of the controller, despite the curvature of the wings and lack of recognizable directional inputs. It is the front. The controller sports no traditional directional controls like analog sticks and directional pads. Instead it will have two, clickable trackpads: one for each hand.
Another somewhat unique feature is the touch screen in the middle. That Steam logo in the middle of the controller isn’t a button like the Xbox 360 Xbox button or the PS button on the PS3. The logo is being displayed through the “high-resolution” screen. The screen is clickable as it is one giant button. Valve explains this as way for players to be able to browse their available options and choose the one they want by clicking the screen. The screen is customizable by the developers to show anything they need it to show, such as radial menus, scrolling menus, or a map. They have also modified Steam to work with the touch screen. When the player touches the screen, an overlay pops up on the main screen so the player can keep their attention on the action at all times if they so choose. The screen does not appear to be multi-touch.
Another rather unique feature are the buttons. The controller will have 16 total buttons, Eight of which are accessible without having to take your thumbs off the trackpads. Six of them should be familiar to anyone who has ever played a modern video game on a console: the two clickable touchpads and the four shoulder buttons. The other two are located on the back of the controller where you normally rest your middle, ring, and pinky fingers. On the inner side of the wings are two long, bar-shaped buttons, which you presumably operate with either your middle or ring fingers. The pinky finger will have to wait another gaming generation or two to see some non-keyboard, gaming action.
Going back to the trackpads, Valve understands that feedback will be an issue when it comes to using them as analog sticks. The issue is rather pervasive on apps for smartphones and tablets that use virtual analog sticks. Valve looks to solve this with two features. The most discernible feature is the use of concentric rings around the trackpad, indicating where the center is and where the outer edges are. But the most interesting feature appears to be built into the trackpad, and it’s one we already have in our current controllers: rumble.
To be more exact, “super-precise haptic feedback” is built into each trackpad. These “dual linear resonant actuators” are precise and strong enough to create a sensation of boundaries and thresholds for the player. In essence, the vibration will be used to give the user feedback as to their thumbs’ current whereabouts on the trackpad. This game of hot and cold with your thumbs is untested in the field of game controllers, and its effectiveness will be impossible to gauge until we get our hands on it.
If this controller ends up crashing and burning, you can always stick to your mouse and keyboard. Valve assures us that the Steam Machine supports those just fine. Steam’s invasion of our living rooms via their Steam OS, Steam Machine, and the Steam Controller begins on a vague day in 2014.