4 October 2013

The Emperor's clothes... Steam Controller

This last week has seen the industry transfixed by the announcements from Valve - coming as they have done during a relatively quiet period between industry trades shows and traditionally preferred release windows in October and November: ready for Black Friday and Christmas respectively. While I was impressed by the eventual release of the Steam OS (though I expected them to support Android titles as well) and the push towards a supported architecture of "semi-standard" boxes from various manufacturers that will probably result in a real boon to Linux support of various bits of hardware on the market I was a bit underwhelmed by the reveal of the Steam controller:

[Insert Darth Vadar/Dark Helmet joke here]

"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."

See, I'm not so sure on the trackpads. Not that I think the high resolution trackpads are a bad thing just that I'm not convinced on their use for a control that is used for panning. This is primarily for two reasons:

- Use of a mouse/trackpad is intrinsically different from using a joystick/thumbstick

- Wear and interaction of the user on a trackpad is intrinscially different to joysticks/thumbsticks

First - thumbsticks work great because you just shift in one direction and your movement speed (or acceleration of speed) is proportional to the distance from the centre dead zone. Mice require physically moving the device back across the surface in order to give yourself more space because it's very rare that, in your control of whatever piece of software, you return to the centre and original position and thus the user will run out of control surface very often.

Another aspect of trackpads is that their control surfaces have lag and are slower to operate as a result of not just this lag but also due to the physical limitations of using a trackpad. Switching between W and D on a keyboard to change between forward and backward motion is instantaneous, running your finger from the top of the left pad to the bottom of it to reverse course is a gradual motion - like using a thumbstick - and thus slower. It's a similar story for the pad on the right if you're using that to look. This is assuming that the implementation will be like a thumbstick with gradients of acceleration from the centre. The alternative is that simply moving to a point on the trackpad switches to that setting - which I can't imagine being used for the direction of the camera in any game but which might work for the movement direction. One issue with direct changing of movement like this second option is that you're even more likely to accidentally engage the button underneath and that may not be desirable. Certainly, on both the 360 and PS3 gamepads I've accidentally engaged the thumbstick buttons when in a stressful/exciting situation in a game when I didn't mean to because I was holding the pad with a tighter grip - something that I think is natural. This might also be an issue for the handle buttons too.

Second - trackpads are hard surfaces and hitting them over and over again (like tapping) very quickly results in RSI injuries compared to a mouse/joystick/thumbstick and is, in my opinion, an uncomfortable experience for a general user interface. This is not to mention slower and less accurate as well: clicking on a trackpad or touch surface isn't always accurate because your fingers are not an accurate pointing device at that or any resolution smaller than your fingertip size. Nor do trackpads and touch surfaces always register that an input was entered because the software has decided that the input was a mistake. 

These issues may have been solved by Valve but I'm not confident when the combined might and reckless competition of Apple and Samsung et al. has failed to get around the issues that apply to their products.
However, they might have if the information page (light as it is) is correct.

The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators.
As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.

It interests me because this implies that the material is soft - not hard like the traditional touch surfaces and trackpads are and, as such, might get around that issue of injury and weariness that you get when using a touch surface for an extended period of time. Also, since there is a button in each concave circular control surface I'm not sure how that's going to gel with having to want to move in any particular direction and pushing a button within that control surface. It doesn't work all that well on a thumbstick for the 360 and PS3 and usually is implemented as a "this function will apply until the stick is released and returned to the dead zone entirely" - which isn't perfect.

"The most prominent elements of the Steam controller are its two circular trackpads. Driven by the player’s thumbs, each one has a high-resolution trackpad as its base. It is also clickable, allowing the entire surface to act as a button."

So, there's definitely only one button behind each trackpad... but then what the hell is going on with the three functions applied in this image? I've not seen it explained to my satisfaction so far and if anyone has an appropriate link please post it in the comments. The best I can come up with is that where your finger is on the trackpad is linked into the button push - which is less ideal than having more button surfaces in sectors under the trackpad. I can imagine that things like wanting to move diagonally in a sidescroller, like you would using the D-pad on any current controller, isn't going to be as easy or feel as natural when trying to activate a function of the button underneath.

I'm not convinced by those trackbuttons... and what are those three un-labelled buttons going to do, hmmm?? Interesting!
The other aspect of the trackpads that also affects this controller's layout is that ancillary buttons are equally shared between both sides of the controller. Whilst this is good because symmetry means that lefties and righties can use the gamepad as they wish it does cause some concern for people with smaller hands. I don't know how big the pad is but reaching the buttons under the handles at the same time as the four buttons around the touch screen (or the touch screen itself) might be problematic. Compared to a traditional controller layout (i.e. since the PS2) the D-pad and four face buttons provide ease of access while only removing one thumb to do so. In comparison this layout removes one button from each hand's operation and focuses more interaction in the centre of the pad and in my experience the PS/Xbox symbol/start/select are not the most easily accessible buttons on other gamepads.

Overall, my interest is piqued by the controller and I'll reserve my final judgement until I can actually hold one and test it out... but the largest problem with that scenario - and for many people - is that how are you going to test it out? This isn't going to be a device that lots of people own or being shown off in a store. In fact it's so different that it probably really needs a critical mass of users espousing the benefits and feel of the device before it will get wider acceptance and that will be a problem. Like all those specialist control devices/interfaces before it such as TrackIR, GameTrak along with other 3-dimensional mice the market will probably be more of a niche than widely accepted unless Valve can use their juggernaut of industry weight to push it.

To give an example: I recently provided vertical mice to some colleagues that were suffering RSIs from constant computer use and their conditions rapidly improved as a result (in combination with treatment, of course!). Their physiotherapists had never even heard of these sorts of things and were immediately impressed and intrigued by them. It amazes me how difficult it can be to get a product - no matter how great - into peoples' awareness, even those you would think would benefit from them the most...

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