Valve – and specifically their all-seeing bossguy Gabe Newell – have long been making noises about ‘entering the hardware space’, as tech journalists say, but here’s what we don’t yet know about their plans:
1) Most of it.
A new job ad sheds a little light on their thinking, however, in much the same way as did another one earlier this year. So we think it’s all to do with wearable computing – ‘Terminator vision’ – but now there’s an implication it might even go beyond that: “We’re frustrated by the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space.” Ooh, get them. I’m frustrated by the lack of innovation in the beer that doesn’t give you a hangover space, but you don’t see me doing anything about it. Then again I’m not a company worth billions.
In their posting for an “Industrial Designer” - surely a title right out of Apple’s playbook – they’re looking for someone to “join a world-class group of electrical, mechanical, software engineers and designers who are busily defining new entertainment experiences through both hardware and software. We’re hoping to add your expertise in product design and manufacturing, ergonomics, usability, aesthetics, and surfacing to our team.”
Here’s the important bit, the bit where a job listing also becomes a bold statement of intent:
“Valve is traditionally a software company. Open platforms like the PC and Mac are important to us, as they enable us and our partners to have a robust and direct relationship with customers. We’re frustrated by the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space though, so we’re jumping in. Even basic input, the keyboard and mouse, haven’t really changed in any meaningful way over the years. There’s a real void in the marketplace, and opportunities to create compelling user experiences are being overlooked.”
As such, their ideal candidate will have “6+ years of professional experience shipping world-class, high-tech hardware products.” So it’s probably not you, unless Jony Ives turns out to be an RPS reader. (I’d be surprised – I don’t think he’s into devices that can a) be modified and b) have things freely installed onto them).
So what can we intuit from this? That the person who wrote the job listing suffers from nasty RSI perhaps. Or, more likely, that Valve feel strongly that the PC’s comparative stagnation as a physical device risks harming both it and Valve’s future. Online functionality and raw performance has blossomed continuially, but the basic PC make-up has not changed meaningfully in decades. The standard argument around these parts is that it doesn’t need to – it got it right first time with keyboard and mouse. But perhaps that is narrow-minded, and would change in the face of something that truly was superior. I, personally, don’t buy that tablets and smartphones are the necessary future of the PC – while touchscreens are well-suited to mobile devices, they do ultimately mean a more crude interface, most especially for gaming. Inventive game designers do wonderful things with touch, but they’ll forever be hampered by the need to be simple.
Question is what Valve are actually referring to here. They’ve had much to say on the concept of wearable computers, but I wonder if this implies they’re also interested in something a little closer to the PC as we know it, updating its mainstays for the 21st century. And that would mean they’re potentially squaring up to Apple, which would make for a hell of a fight and, hopefully, not one that’s based on copying each other.
Oh, speculation. Where does it really get us? Alls I do knows is that there have been shedloads of attempts to update computers’ basic input over the years, at least in a gaming sense – from gesture-based gloves to a vest that simulates being shot to the strangely covetable Microsoft Strategic Commander to assorted aborted camera-based controls to any number of attempted reworkings of the humble keyboard and mouse. The trouble is they’ve all been a bit shit.
That would be a fine way to end this post, but actually it’s not fair. There have been bold experiments, but they’ve been, for one reason, too specialised – and that has scared off both software companies who might support them and any potential customers. A firm of Valve’s size and reputation coming out with something could change things dramatically – but it could also risk being so far apart from what the rest of the gaming/tech industry is doing that no-one else gets on board. Ack, speculation again. It’s because I’m incredibly interested in what a company that has been reliably fascinating might do in a whole new field. And because I do have some RSI myself.