New dimensions in gaming

The Piston is part of the first wave of 'steam boxes'

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16 December 2013 | 0

For hardcore gamers weary of persistent reports about Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 sales (2 million and counting for both, by the way) two stories have been circulating over the past few days reaffirming the position of the PC as the most flexible – if not the most popular – platform on the market.

Last week, Valve released a Linux-based operating system for its Steam distribution and community service: SteamOS. This beta release will be followed by a range of branded ‘steam machines‘ next year.

So far, we’ve seen a variety of steam machine designs from the Xi3’s outlandish $1,000 Piston PC to Valve’s more appealing $499 set-top box, to Digital Storm‘s monstrous $1,469 tower. System builders will enjoy the challenge of putting together their own SteamOS PC but Valve’s strategy is to have a Steam machine for every budget – and every front room.

SteamOS will struggle to grow Steam’s user base, although it will consolidate it. Regular console gamers, however, won’t be troubled by steam machines as the experience both because of overlap (which console gamer doesn’t play occasionally on a PC?) and the for The lack of optional extras. While Steam, Xbox Live and PlayStation+ are vibrant online communities it’s the optional extras that have Steam at a loss.

The Xbox One’s goal of being an integrated home entertainment solution is beyond Steam at the moment, while the cross-device compatibility of PS+ accounts will show the power of using multiple devices as a means of strengthening an ecosystem. I had hoped subscription-based streaming gaming service OnLive would have matured by now to compete as a software/hardware combination with competitive pricing. At $139 for a controller and set-top box I have a hard time figuring out why publishers aren’t embracing a Netflix-style revenue model more. Then again, given the quality of titles on OnLive compared to Netflix’s vast but weak US catalogue, maybe they are.

Getting back to my main point, SteamOS can’t compete with Microsoft and Sony in a head-on clash but its flexibility gives it an edge in third party peripherals – this is where good news story number 2 comes in. Good news here came last week in the announcement that virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR had secured $75 million in funding for its Rift project. This is on top of the $16.4 million it got from Series A funding and $2.4 million from a crowdsourcing campaign on KickStarter. Yes, virtual reality died a death in the 90s but advancements in graphics and motion control have turned a novelty technology into a sought-after peripheral. A series of viral videos showing the reaction of regular people experiencing the Rift for the first time shows just how powerful the experience can be (some examples are here, here and here).

We still don’t know when Oculus’ Rift will appear on the market or how much it will cost but its applications in education and media production take it beyond the human computer interaction novelty device graveyeard with trackballs and early attempts at handwriting recognition. From a gaming perspective the Rift coupled with an accurate motion controller could be this generation’s D-pad.

SteamOS in its various guises could do fine on its own and may even put some people off buying a console but the Rift will definitely put pressure on the consoles to adapt or risk migration from consoles back to PCs. For Valve and its hardware partners, that’s great news.

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