Valve Hardware Pt. 3: Steam Controller

Subject: General Tech, Cases and Cooling, Systems | September 27, 2013 - 02:42 PM |
Tagged: SteamOS, Steam Controller, reverse-consolitis

Steam Controller is the third, and final, announcement in the Steam Hardware event. Sure, the peripheral looks weird. It looks very weird. The first thing(s?) you will notice, and likely the driving influence for the iconography, is... or are... the touch pads which replace the expected thumbsticks. The second thing you will notice is the "high resolution" (no specific resolution or dimension was provided) touchscreen.

View Full Size

The most defining aspect of the controllers, as previously stated, is its pair of trackpads. This input method might actually stand the chance of precise controls while maintaining comfort for a couch. To start, I will quote Valve:

In addition, games like first-person shooters that are designed around precise aiming within a large visual field now benefit from the trackpads’ high resolution and absolute position control.

The emphasis was placed by me.

Last year, almost to the date, I published an editorial, "Is the Gamepad Really Designed for Gaming?" In it, I analyzed console controllers from an engineering standpoint. I blamed velocity-based joystick control for the need to enable auto-aim on console titles. Quoting myself, which feels a little weird to be entirely honest:

Analog sticks are a velocity-oriented control scheme where the mouse is a relative position-oriented control scheme. When you move a joystick around you do not move the pointer to a target rather you make it travel at some speed in the direction of the target. With a mouse you just need to move it the required distance and stop. It is easier to develop a sensitivity to how far you need to pull a mouse to travel to the target than a sensitivity to how long to hold a joystick in a given direction to reach a target. Joysticks are heavily reliant on our mental clocks and eye coordination.

Each trackpad can also be clicked, like the thumbsticks of current controllers just probably more comfortably, to provide extra functionality. From a User Experience (UX) standpoint, I can envision a first-person shooter which emulates a (velocity-based) joystick when the right trackpad is pressed (assuming it is very light to press and comfortably to rub your thumb against while pressing) but switches to position-based when touched but not pressed.

The implication is quick rotation when firing from the hip, but positionally-based targeting when precision is required. Maybe other methods will come up too? I find the technology particularly exciting because Valve, clearly, designed it with the understanding of position-based versus velocity-based control. This challenge you rarely hear discussed.

View Full Size

The touchscreen is also a large clickable surface. The controller recognizes touch input and overlays the contents of the screen atop the user's screen but it will not commit the action until the touchpad is pressed. This is designed so the gamer will not need to look at their controller to see what action they are performing.

Personally, I hope this is developer-accessible. Some games, as the WiiU suggests, can benefit from hiding information.

Haptic feedback also ties into the trackpads. Their intent is to provide sensations to the thumbs and compensate for loss of mechanical sensation with thumbsticks. Since they are in there, Valve decided to offer a large, programmable, data channel to very precisely control the effect.

They specifically mention the ability to accept audio waveforms to function as speakers "as a parlour trick".

The devices will be beta tested, via the Steam Machine quest, but without wireless or touchscreen support. Instead of a touchscreen, the controller will contain a four-quadrant grid of buttons mapped to commands.

Thus wraps up the three-pronged announcement. Valve directs interested users to their Steam Universe group for further discussion.

Source: Steam

Video News

September 27, 2013 | 03:25 PM - Posted by YTech

Very nice!

I can start to see in which direction Steam/Valve is going with their SteamBox as they focus more on the Big Picture concept (pun also intended).

I feel like the Aperture Science Enrichment Center project is coming to life!

September 27, 2013 | 04:46 PM - Posted by Randomoneh

I move my mouse by the speed of x cm/s. Speed is pretty much constant (except for when target is very close to current position). My brain comes up with a guess on how long do I have to keep moving my mouse (at constant speed) to get to my target.

That's the way we use joysticks too, is it not? Only difference is that joystick goes back to its original position and mouse does not.

September 27, 2013 | 06:01 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud


The brain knows where its limbs and digits are and operates by thinking about where it wants them to go. With velocity-based devices, you need to continually perceive the state of the object and estimate when you need to start decelerating (and, then, you need to actually decelerate).

Both have a learning curve, because position and velocity needs to map to rotational position, but position does not have a time component which relies upon the person's rhythm.

Again, there's a reason why gamepads require autoaim and mouse/keyboard pairs do not. I would expect thumbsticks, with all of the companies doing them, are nearing the max of their potential for shooters by now. It seems pretty clear, to me, to be a fundamental problem.

How well will trackpads perform? Time, and a little iteration, will tell. At least they are positionally based (and, better yet, Valve seems to recognize the advantage of position-based control and should, therefore, develop accordingly).

September 28, 2013 | 10:54 AM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

The biggest problem of thumbsticks is that the default length is too small for precise aim. While most hardcore fps gamers have moved to using lower mouse sensitivity and large mousepads, the same cannot be said for default game controllers. However, there are manufacturers offering good solutions for this, I like very much the "FPS Freek Snipr" as it even has a convex top that allows for precise thumb "rolling", for those pixel aim adjustments.

While the issue of thumbsticks vs mouse is highly debatable (at the best case I'd say thumbsticks can be as good as playing on a mouse with acceleration; however the impact of using a "lower sens" with a "big mousepad" is much much higher than acceleration on/off, hence lengthier thumsticks), there are other great benefits to using a controller instead of a keyboard: you get analog movement (left stick) and analog triggers. When properly used, these can be huge advantages.

September 27, 2013 | 07:31 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

if you have no mouse acceleration your brain knows how much more to move your hand to reach the target

with mouse acceleration your brain can not exactly be sure how much further you need to move your hand to reach the target as the mouse movement is also related to how fast you moved your hand over a certain distance... though you do get used to it

so i think basically the human brain can get used to all of these input devices

September 28, 2013 | 01:59 AM - Posted by Scott Michaud

As a side note, I hate mouse acceleration and immediately turn it off.

And yes, the human brain can get used to all sorts of input devices. We are able to get used to unicycling across a tight rope (this guy can even simultaneously juggle, to some extent)... does not mean it is good UX. Thumbsticks are difficult enough that basically every implementation includes aim assist which they rarely even let you turn off (I think one or both of the Unreal Championship games allow it).

Velocity based input methods are simply at a disadvantage when controlling positional-based actions.

September 27, 2013 | 05:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Not moving back to its original position and manual acceleration makes all the difference in the world. It makes it possible to make tiny little pixel-level adjustments to broad screen shifting transitions in a single motion. Try doing that with a joystick. This is not even factoring the on-the-fly dpi adjustments possible with many mice.

September 27, 2013 | 07:39 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Information that confirms some suspicions..

Tabar said the configuration map for the controller allows you to do "pretty much anything." For example, developers can slice up a pad into quarters, each one representing a different input, or even into eight radial sections, again, each section representing whatever you want, mapping to key combinations, or to the mouse."

He said areas on the trackpad can be configured to have multiple button inputs. For example, the very top edge of a trackpad can be mapped to the keyboard's Shift+W, making your character in a first-person game run.

"It feels like you're moving your thumbs over a rough surface, though it's all virtual," Lambe said. "From a tech standpoint, think about something that can click whenever you tell it to... Simple example: you move your finger 1 inch up, and it ticks 10 times...You flick it up, and it starts ticking, like you've spun a wheel."

September 28, 2013 | 10:38 AM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

There seems to be a current tendency to criticize gamepad devices vs the keyboard/mouse combo.

I'd say the biggest problem is that most people criticizing gamepads have actually a very tiny experience with them when compared to the keyboard/mouse combo.

Using joysticks efficiently has definitely a steep learning curve and especially since the default joystick lengths in controllers are very small for precise aiming. Try this: (yes, with a convex top, allowing for the thumbs to "roll" like on a trackball, for very precise aim).

About the Valve controller, I'd say it has huge drawbacks. Imagine this: if you are playing a game where you can't remove both your thumbs from the trackpads (because you need constant movement & aim), how are you going to press any of the buttons/touchscreen in the middle of the screen? This is already an issue with most gamepads nowadays, since you need the right thumb to press A,B,X,Y (and thus can't aim while doing it). The only gamepad that has a solution for this is the Razer Sabertooth, that has extra buttons on the bottom of the gamepad, allowing you to keep your thumbs 100% of the time on the joysticks (continuous movement & aim).

September 28, 2013 | 02:22 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud


The people implementing auto aim and bullet magnetism are console developers. I also have (had) quite a bit of experience with analog sticks from the N64, Xbox, and Xbox 360 generations; I also use a gamepad (Xbox 360) on my PC quite frequently (games like Splinter Cell: Conviction, Tony Hawk, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, etc.). Mouse and keyboard are more precise for lots of discrete inputs and pinpoint aiming. They are, however, less suitable for a relaxed gaming environment.

Also, the Steam Controller has a couple of extra buttons on the back of the gamepad, too.

September 28, 2013 | 04:40 PM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

Jet fighter pilots don't use a keyboard/mouse, they use joysticks. :) The reason for that is joysticks allow for tracking of moving targets with much more precision than a position-based interface, like a mouse. Any game that has more moving targets than stationary ones will benefit from joystics (less mass, thus less inertia and no switch from stationary attriction to cinetic and vice versa).

September 28, 2013 | 04:58 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Actually it's because joysticks are better for stable, continuous commands.

For example, try playing a lightgun shooter with a joystick. There's multiple targets, right? There's also a lot of quick direction changes... which makes it not-ideal. Now, if you are tracking a target moving in a (relatively) constant direction (such as a banking airplane), a joystick COULD be better. Most of the input you need to provide is "keep turning in this direction" with a little adjustment here and there.

September 28, 2013 | 08:08 PM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

I think you are giving very low credit to joysticks. Air dogfights are usually very hectic with very quick direction changes. Fighter jets use them for a reason. :)

My opinion is still that current console gamepads with small thumbsticks make movement & aim very coarse. You really need to mod those and make them higher to achieve much better precision, otherwise it's the same as playing an FPS game with a cheap mouse and high sens.

If you like using a controller for those more relaxed games, try getting some fps freeks to see the difference elevating the joysticks does to overall precision. It is really something else. I've tried both the concave and convex versions (also using a Xbox 360 controller) and I have to say that the top convex surface really adds to precision on FPS games.

I'd argue that one of the best control schemes in the future will be a gamepad plus head tracking (Oculus Rift), so that you get that last bit of positional precision coming from the head track (if it's properly implemented with low latency ofc).

September 28, 2013 | 08:58 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Your last comment was fairly interesting.

As a side note: I try to be careful to not say "best" or "better" when it comes to control schemes... just "better" (or sometimes "best") in terms of particular attributes of a control scheme. So I'd argue there is no "best" control scheme (period).

But your last comment about a gamepad with head tracking has some interesting consequences. While I am not sure whether the head is particularly precise, the eyes are -- if given a specific target to (literally) focus on.

It would be amusing to compare the precision of finger swiping to eye movement -- both in terms of following arbitrary paths (which I'd expect the hand would win... given our ability to write symbols) and snapping between discrete points (which I'd expect the eyes to win... given our ability to quickly shift our focus aorund between objects).

Better yet, eye tracking technology could be three-dimensional if you have the technology to effectively measure how our eyes cross (or maybe even how our lens distorts to focus near and far). For that, however, we would likely require a holographic (or amazing stereoscopic) display.

Then again, there is a possibility we will achieve too much precision. Imagine trying to balance every game under the assumption that all players have perfect aimbots (also known as Loque from UT99 on Godlike difficulty, lol)... yikes.

September 30, 2013 | 07:25 AM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

Eye-tracking is already much doable, unfortunately it has a lot of jitter and blur due to saccadic movement and masking:

Head tracking still allows for very precise positioning, while having the eyes free to scout everything before committing to a positional change in your aim. :)

September 29, 2013 | 01:50 AM - Posted by HyperMinimal (not verified)

I have over a thousand hours experience using a joystick controller and using the keyboard mouse each. For FPS games the analog control stick is inferior. It's that simple. Play counterstrike online and tell me how well you do with a controller.

September 30, 2013 | 07:30 AM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

I've played CS semi-pro since 1.3 to 1.6 and many other competitive fps games. My best fps combo a Razer Mamba with a Razer Destructor pad. I know very well how keyboard/mouse can perform at top notch.

However, you are missing my point. I'm not saying a controller is better for fps; I'm saying a *modded* controller is definitely better for fps than a normal controller, up to the point where it's a very different beast.

September 28, 2013 | 11:03 AM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

The use of trackpads can also have very negative effects on fps games: Imagine you need to take the right thumb out of the trackpad to press one of the center buttons; what happens now when you touch back the trackpad? Do you forcibly need to touch on the center? Can your crosshair erroneously move somewhere if you don't exactly touch where you're supposed to?

We know that in the case of a thumbstick, when you remove the thumb it is re-centered, so that when you touch it again you are in its dead-zone, which doesn't move your aim anywhere. How will a trackpad work on this? What if in the heat of battle you fail to touch the center of the trackpad and erroneously move your aim somewhere you don't want to?

Also, how long will your thumb fingerprints last playing with this controller everyday? xD

September 28, 2013 | 02:30 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Then that would be the fault of a bad gameplay/UX design(er) (or Valve for their hardware implementation or not allowing enough programmability).

As I said in the article, distance and angle from center could emulate a thumbstick (velocity-based) *only* when you press down enough to register a "click". When you just lightly rub against the track surface (not click), it could be position-based centred on where your thumb started touching the surface, and ending where it stopped or let go (like sliding a mouse).

And that was within the first 30-60 minutes of seeing the controller.

September 28, 2013 | 07:48 PM - Posted by Virty (not verified)

That can be an interesting implementation, but it still doesn't solve the problem of pressing the center buttons. For example, looking at the Portal 2 binds above, you can't be moving *and* using push to talk, unless you have two left thumbs! xD

Also, will we see thumb "mouse skatez" in the future? Even if the thumbpads are silky smooth I wonder how comfortable they'll be after hours of usage and with some sweat in there. Ugh! :P

September 28, 2013 | 08:00 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Yeah there will definitely be some games which have bad control schemes even if Valve really did nail the hardware.

September 29, 2013 | 01:44 AM - Posted by HyperMinimal (not verified)

Holy crap joystick nerds! If you think using an analog joystick thumb controller is better than the keyboard mouse I dare you right now - and I mean right the eff now!!! to plug your stupid controller into the pc and play online competitive game that requires quick reaction movement and does not allow auto aim. CoD does not count because is has auto aim. Go ahead and download Counter Strike and see how well you do with your retarded controller. Seriously - I freakin' dare you!!! Please report back and tell me how well you do.

Thank goodness valve is trying to bridge the gap between the PC/keyboard mouse and console/controller. I love my PC which has been hooked up to a 55" television for the last six years. I love using the Microsoft Xbox controller on my PC for several hundred games, however FPS games are atrocious with the Xbox controller. Racing games are awesome with the controller.

Another game you should try right now with a controller is War Thunder - it's free so try it right the freaking hell now! After you try it with the stupid controller and analog sticks - switch to a mouse then tell me what you think? Which one was better? (hint - it's not the controller) But Please get off your soap box about the debate between analog velocity controller vs keyboard mouse. FPS games are much better with position based controllers. period. end of story. Try it yourself before posting stupid comments on here. Why don't you try UT2004 with a controller on the PC and see how well you do online. Hopefully the valve controller will open the minds of the doubtful and change our gaming universe for the better.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <blockquote><p><br>
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.