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That Was Easy: Valve's Hardware Is Wearable Computing

Except, you know, imagine those glasses are from the future.

Valve doesn’t like to say things. Where’s Half-Life 2: Episode Three? Silence. Why has Left 4 Dead 2’s Cold Stream DLC taken nearly a year? Silence. What does Gordon Freeman’s voice sound like? Silence. Yesterday, though, a Valve job listing seeking out new hardware tech wizards for its shadowy developer coven got the whole Internet talking. And, somewhat shockingly, Valve’s decided to talk back.

Admittedly, this isn’t entirely unprecedented. Last time Gabe Newell emerged from his patented Gabe Cave, glorious wisdom beard gleaming from the mystical energies of a million gaming revelations (or maybe just the sun), he briefly mentioned Valve’s forays into wearable computing. Now, though, Valve developer and former Quake coauthor Michael Abrash has blown the lid off the subject with an extremely interesting blog post. Need proof? Well, I’ve brought you these snippets. Because I love you.

“By ‘wearable computing’ I mean mobile computing where both computer-generated graphics and the real world are seamlessly overlaid in your view; there is no separate display that you hold in your hands (think Terminator vision). The underlying trend as we’ve gone from desktops through laptops and notebooks to tablets is one of having computing available in more places, more of the time. The logical endpoint is computing everywhere, all the time – that is, wearable computing – and I have no doubt that 20 years from now that will be standard.”

“What does a wearable UI look like, and how does it interact with wearable input? How does the computer know where you are and what you’re looking at? When the human visual system sees two superimposed views, one real and one virtual, what will it accept and what will it reject? To what extent is augmented reality useful – and if it’s useful, to what extent is it affordably implementable in the near future? What hardware advances are needed to enable the software? And much, much more – there are deep, worthy challenges everywhere you look.”

He also noted that he thinks the shift to wearable computing could begin as soon as 3-5 years from now. Google concurs. Perhaps equally fascinating for entirely different reasons, though, is Abrash’s breakdown of Valve’s workplace organizational structure. The short version? There is none.

“How could a 300-person company not have any formal management? It takes new hires about six months before they fully accept that no one is going to tell them what to do, that no manager is going to give them a review, that there is no such thing as a promotion or a job title or even a fixed role (although there are generous raises and bonuses based on value to the company, as assessed by peers). That it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to allocate the most valuable resource in the company – their time – by figuring out what it is that they can do that is most valuable for the company, and then to go do it. That if they decide that they should be doing something different, there’s no manager to convince to let them go; they just move their desk to the new group (the desks are on wheels, with computers attached) and start in on the new thing.”

Granted, projects tend to elect leads and less freeform structures, but there’s apparently no official titles or politics to it. Same goes for Steam, which – given the scope of the operation – is frankly astounding. I highly recommend you read through the whole thing if you get the chance. It’s a brilliant look inside a company whose doors are generally so firmly shut that I just sort of assumed people left the building via some form of secret underground chute system. Also, this is the closest thing to an on-paper outline of Valve Time we’re ever gonna get.

The whole thing carries a pervasive “you should totally come work for us” vibe too, which is an interesting shift for a company that’s traditionally satiated its highly selective tastes with only the absolute cream of the crop. And while I don’t doubt that it’s still setting out a series of Genius Traps to catch only the best and the brightest, Abrash almost seems to be opening the floodgates. Maybe it’s revving up to tackle wearable computing in a big way, or maybe it’s a load of different factors. Maybe I’m reading into this too much. But it really is quite the thing. Also, I can’t wait to play a version of Half-Life where my eyes are guns.

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Nathan Grayson

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