It seems that Valve has been developing a new type of controller for gaming, using dual trackpads instead of thumbsticks. Which, of course, begs the question of tactile feedback because how the heck are you supposed to tell where your thumbs are on a trackpad without looking? I can barely use my laptop mousepad without looking.
Valve is tackling this with the science, the science of haptics. Haptic technology uses vibrations, force and pressure changes, or small motions to trick your sense of touch. We’re all used to this technology, most often used in the form of vibrating controllers. Remember those N64 Rumble Pak attachments? Ah, nostalgia.
The Steam gamepad will take this technology a few steps further. The “rumble” effect by itself is in no way close enough to the kind of intuitive feedback that gamers get from a thumbstick. Instead, the trackpad will use a series of small electromagnets that will be able to precisely control the range and force of the vibrations, allowing for the sense of movement, direction, boundaries, action confirmation, and textures on the trackpad. And as the magnets under the trackpads work on the same principle as headphone speakers, the trackpads can also produce sounds and function as speakers (though this is not their main function, and most likely won’t often be used as such).
Indie developer Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games got the opportunity to test out the controller, here’s what he had to say:
“This sounds weird, but it’s almost like rolling two weighted trackballs that are too large to actually fit into the controller,” Lambe said as he tried to explain what it’s like to have one’s thumbs on those two trackpads. “For camera controls, slide one thumb to the right, and you’ll feel this ticking, like you’re turning a physical control. Flick your thumb quickly, and this imaginary physical thing reacts like something with weight to it—the ‘trackball’ continues to roll for a bit, eventually coming to a rest. And since it’s all controlled through the software, the same trackpad then becomes more like a mouse or a laptop trackpad when you’re navigating through menus. Dynamic!”
The controller also features a large, high-definition touch-screen in between the two trackpads, the entire surface of which also doubles as one large button. The screen can be used to swipe or scroll through menus, but an action will not be taken until the play clicks the screen, preventing accidental in-game consequences. When the screen is pressed, it will also display the contents of the touchscreen superimposed on your monitor, to keep you from having to look at the gamepad.
By design, the controller will be completely hackable, and supports a legacy mode that will allow it to recognize as a mouse and keyboard for some older games. This is all to ensure it will work with the full library of Steam games. Not quite sure how that will work, but I’m looking forward to seeing that happen.
Right now, the gamepad is in beta, available for testing to a lucky few. Those lucky few will also be testing Valve’s design for their new line of Steam Machines, a series of consoles to be offered by multiple parties, all supporting Steam games.