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Valve’s Steam Box controllers may use biometrics and gaze tracking

Jan 09, 20136 mins
BiometricsCESData and Information Security

Valve CEO Gabe Newell indicated that the long-awaited Steam Box, Valve's PC/TV gaming system, may include biometrics and gaze tracking.

At CES 2013, Valve is vetting 15 – 20 hardware partners to create prototypes for the long-awaited Steam TV gaming system, dubbed the Steam Box, which Valve will distribute. Valve’s Big Picture launched last month and now Valve product designer Greg Coomer has explained to Polygon that the company is working on “convincing hardware manufacturers to make console-like computers that work for the living room.”

Valve CEO Gabe Newell indicated that Steam Box will not use motion like Microsoft’s Kinect; in fact Newell made it clear that he dislikes motion-based gaming controls. Instead, he expects Valve Steam Box to put out controllers that will use biometrics and gaze tracking.

The Verge was granted an exclusive interview with Newell, who said:

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. Motion just seems to be a way of [thinking] of your body as a set of communication channels. Your hands, and your wrist muscles, and your fingers are actually your highest bandwidth – so to trying to talk to a game with your arms is essentially saying “oh we’re going to stop using Ethernet and go back to 300 baud dial-up.” Maybe there are other ways to think of that. There’s more engagement when you’re using larger skeletal muscles, but whenever we go down [that path] we sort of come away unconvinced. 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.

Although Newell spent thirteen years working to build Windows for Microsoft before co-founding Valve, he hates Windows 8. Newell also told The Verge:

Windows 8 was like this giant sadness. It just hurts everybody in the PC business. Rather than everybody being all excited to go buy a new PC, buying new software to run on it, we’ve had a 20+ percent decline in PC sales – it’s like “holy cow that’s not what the new generation of the operating system is supposed to do.” There’s supposed to be a 40 percent uptake, not a 20 percent decline, so that’s what really scares me. When I started using it I was like “oh my god…” I find [Windows 8] unusable.

The Steam Box will run Linux, according to Newell, but it won’t be locked down; if users want Windows, then they can install it. The confusing flipside is that Valve hardware engineer Ben Krasnow said “The box might be Linux-based, but it might not.”

That’s not the only bit of Steam Box confusion coming out of the CES rumor-mill. A mini-PC gaming system and tiny potential Steam Box created by Xi3 stirred up a lot of press. Xi3 told Polygon that “Piston will offer up to 1 TB of internal storage and offer modular component updates, including the option to upgrade the PC’s CPU and RAM.” Time added that Piston is “based on Xi3′s X7A modular system. That system has a quad-core processor, up to 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, up to a terabyte of solid state storage and support for three monitors. The starting price for the X7A is $999.”

Gizmodo called Piston, “Valve and Xi3’s Steam box love-child,” but Xi3’s Piston is not “the” Steam Box according to PCMag which “confirmed that this is not the case. The Xi3 ‘Piston’ computer was in Valve’s booth next to an Alienware system, but neither were intended to be definitive, or even possible Steamboxes.” HotHardware reported that Xi3 “was also adamant that its Piston PC is the real deal, leaving us to conclude that Xi3 was misinformed about Valve’s commitment to its hardware.”

Regarding those systems seen at the Valve booth, Valve representative Tom Giardito explained that “several of the systems were simply off-the-shelf Alienware systems running the Linux version of Steam with Big Picture.” He added “there is no single Steam Box” and “Xi3 is one of many hardware partners working with Valve.” Furthermore, “a Steam Box could become more of a standard for gaming PCs designed for HDTVs than a Xbox or PlayStation-like-product.”

Valve PR told Engadget, “Many PCs optimized for Steam and Big Picture will be shipping later this year. We are bringing some of these as well as some custom HW prototypes to our CES meetings. These custom prototypes are low-cost, high performance designs for the living room that also incorporate Steam and Big Picture.”

The Steam Box has been nicknamed internally at Valve as “Bigfoot” and “Littlefoot,” according to Newell. “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.”

When asked if Valve will be able to compete with Microsoft and Sony, Newell added, “The internet is super smart. If you do something that is cool, that’s actually worth people’s time, then they’ll adopt it. If you do something that’s not cool and sucks, you can spend as many marketing dollars as you want, [they] just won’t.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.