NotOpodcast: Episode 2

Welcome to the second episode of NotOpodcast, where Kilroy and Michael join me to discuss a variety of topics such as the rumored new versions of the Xbox One and PS4 consoles, the ways software is changing the hardware landscape, and how cheap we'd be willing go when choosing a firearm.

The timecodes are:

Gaming - 1:54
Technology - 19:26
Firearms - 27:37

 


Steam Machines to Officially Launch in 2015

Valve has been talking about their Steam OS platform since 2013, we discussed it at length here. At CES 2014, it was the talk of the town, with many OEMs promising to release Steam Machines (defined as gaming PCs designed for living room use running Steam OS and utilizing the as yet unreleased Steam Controller) within the coming months after CES.

Later in 2014, it turned out that Valve had not yet finalized its controller design nor had it finished the Steam OS; as of the time of this writing, Steam OS is still in beta. Many system builders opted to release their systems as regular gaming PCs designed for living room use, and they opted to run Windows and include Steam with Big Picture mode enabled, along with a bundled Xbox 360 controller.

However, despite silence from Valve over the recent months, it has been confirmed by multiple sources that Steam Machines will have an official launch at GDC (the Game Developers Conference) in early March of 2015. The Steam Controller design has been finalized, and Steam OS is apparently ready to come out of beta. Multiple PC boutique builders are already ready to launch a variety of products designed from the ground up as Steam Machines.

What this means for Microsoft is that they'll have some new competition to face when Windows 10 comes out later this year. Valve is working quickly to bring games to Linux systems such as Steam OS, and PC builders might opt to go for Steam OS for gaming focused PCs in order to save money by not having to purchase a Windows license.

This is also an issue for Microsoft on the hardware front, as many of the Steam Machines will aim for a $500 price point, designed to compete with the Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox One.

Whether Valve will be successful in pushing Steam Machines is yet to be determined, but while everyone expected 2014 to be the year of Steam Machines and Steam OS, it obviously didn't happen, but 2015 is now confirmed.

We don't have any details yet on the finalized Steam Controller design, but we'll update this article as soon as we do (although it might unfortunately not be until official release at GDC).


Valve, Steam, and the Future of Living Rooms

SteamOSsmall

So after a tumultuous week of announcements to revolutionize the industry, Valve Software saved their best for last and announced a... controller? Okay, sure, it looks a bit like an old fashioned boom box with its two trackpads and odd button arrangements, but what exactly are they trying to do? While it’s certainly no Half-Life 3 or Source 2 engine announcement, their approach to the not-quite-a-console in the living room has some high minded implications for the gaming and multimedia community as a whole.

There’s been a lot of discussion and speculation about Valve’s future plans, especially since news broke  about how Valve had patented the design of some new gamepad that would feature replaceable control options ranging from the traditional stick to a roller ball that would attempt to emulate mouse movement. However, to focus on an analysis of just the controller itself, and how the ergonomics and button layout deliver a seemingly streamlined FPS experience where it counts, while also opening up the interface to even RTSs in the Big Picture living room environment would have too narrow a view to really get at what it appears Valve is aiming to accomplish.

So what are they aiming for? Empire, in a single word. From the amount of secrecy in their development, along with the amount of industry pressure they can exert with their position, Valve seems to be thinking much bigger than their own Big Picture. To begin, let’s just follow the line on what they’ve announced this week.

SteamOS. Something that is guaranteed to be the most user friendly way of introducing Linux to the masses. While those of us with some computer experience are probably familiar with Ubuntu, CentOS, Redhat, or any of the other myriad of Linux distributions out there, really the only one that the general public has ever even heard a whisper of would be Ubuntu. However, that alone wasn’t good enough. Despite the billionaire at its head and a foundation to do the work, Ubuntu never really had the pull it needed to achieve the fabled ‘year of the Linux Desktop’. They’re expanding to phones soon, and tablets, but where is the first party support for high end graphics and awesome drivers? Valve solves that quite simply: by being the leading digital distribution service for games, it’s fairly obvious to see why NVIDIA was so willing to work with Valve on this project. So what are the implications? Significantly better Linux drivers and Bazaar driven development in the way Valve (amongst other companies) has created and released easy to use SDKs and programs for their zealous communities to release new content and fixes through venues such as Steam Workshop. If Valve keeps this up and makes Steam OS as hackable and free as most other Linux distros (and they’ve suggested it will be), then it will have the potential of being the largest mass market distribution service available short of the Google Play marketplace.

The Steam Machine: here’s a tough one to not wildly speculate on. Taken to its furthest extreme, it has multiple implications for console gaming, ubiquitous computing, and the future of multimedia in general. PC Gaming has been sitting on top of the pile for quite some time now as the ‘best’ method of gaming (for various reasons I won’t get into here), but of course there are a number of things required to get a good setup that can do all the things you want it to do. At the 2013 CES, Valve announced the Piston ‘Steam Box’ in a partnership with Xi3. After doing so, they disappeared from CES and left a cardboard cutout of a cat with a sign taped to it saying “The Valve booth is meow closed”. By the time March rolled around, Valve had already distanced themselves from the entire project. What this new Steam Machine prototype suggests is a different market entry method for people who wouldn’t normally go in for a typical PC gaming experience. Coupled with the fact that the box itself will run a Linux derivative and is meant to exist in the living room space, the Steam Machine stands to be an interesting not-quite-console that could serve well as a spare PC for PC gamers who already have a powerful machine, an entry level PC for people coming from the console world, or if this expands far enough - a home multimedia box for the whole family.

controller_schematic

The Steam Controller. With the move from focusing on desktops and laptops to home theatre setups and HDTVs, obviously the fine grain mouse and keyboard interface wasn’t going to survive the transition very well.  So what does the Steam Controller mean for those of us who are hesitantly buying in to all this Valve hype? I, for one, am intrigued by the idea of leaving the hardware open and replaceable for the community. What strange creations this could result in by being coupled with devices such as Oculus Rift or other traditional interfaces has yet to be seen, but some hacker out there will likely be inspired. The controller adds a small touchscreen and extended accessibility to the interface. The implementation of the two large haptic, clickable trackpads is a step in the right direction for those of us converting from the old mouse and keyboard method, at least in trying to preserve the fine granularity of aiming precision while also giving us the full 360 degree motion of an analog stick. This won’t replace the keyboard as far as data entry and interaction goes, but the controller does seem to be an interesting idea to bring mouse- and keyboard-only games to the living room screen. Plus, Valve’s more eccentric ideas tend to become a pretty big deal, even if no one sees the use for two track pads that can be speakers as of the moment.

To try and figure out what game Valve happens to be playing - which seems to be closer to Stratego than Chess here - quite a fair bit of baseless speculation can take us into the future of consumer computer interaction. Gabe Newell has been quite vocal since the release of Windows 8 that the entire OS is dead to him now, and with Steam OS, he has thrown in his lot with Linux and its derivatives. What this will mean for us in the long run is better drivers and more games that will be Linux compatible, which is guaranteed to give Microsoft a run for its money. On top of that, backwards compatibility with games that are Windows-only has the potential of being solved through Wine, or at least a Wine-like interface. Taking a step back from the nuts and bolts, the addition of Steam as an alternative living room platform in tandem with Smart TVs and smart homes pushes out Valve’s sphere of influence from simply being digital distributors for games.

From what we’ve seen of Valve’s announcements, and the lack of Half-Life 3 or Source 2, or any of the other projects Valve has in the works, it seems that they’ve really switched gears from being a software development group to more of a technology think-tank that can sell their projects. The full extent of what they have planned is yet to be seen, but it’s guaranteed to shake up the gaming and entertainment world.