Valve Software’s hardware division is still in its infancy. Despite having existed for over a year, recruitment is still its primary concern — “prototyping is almost secondary,” longtime inventor/hacker/now Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth told us in an interview this week. As the team ramps up, production becomes more and more prolific, of course; Ellsworth lights up when she talks about the work her team is doing now. She gets verbose when asked about corporate culture at Valve, about how she’s never worked at a company where risk and failure are so acceptable — even encouraged. She’s visibly excited about the prototypes she’s creating at Valve’s new prototyping facility, but manages to contain herself enough to not let slip exactly what her and her team are working on.
When asked what the team’s immediate goals are, she obliquely states, “To make Steam games more fun to play in your living room.” That’s the team’s one-year goal, at least. The challenge is making games that require a mouse and keyboard palatable to people who are used to a controller, or to people who just don’t want to migrate PC controls to the comfort of their living room. Working in tandem with Steam’s newly beta’d “Big Picture Mode,” Ellsworth’s team is creating a hardware solution to the control barriers found in many Steam games. She wouldn’t give any hints as to what that solution is exactly, but she left no options off the table — from Phantom Lapboard-esque solutions to hybrid controllers.
Regardless, it sounds like gamers will have a chance to give feedback on those designs, as Valve’s hardware team is planning a beta for its various products. Ellsworth is hoping to have one for the team’s first product in the coming year — we’ll of course know much more about the product by then, she says. Internal beta tests are already underway, and a variety of the team’s prototypes are available in the office for other Valve employees to tool around with. The next step is getting prototypes into gamers hands — she says Valve already has a production line for short runs, making a beta possible — and iterating on design before launch. As for how the beta will be handled, she posits it’ll be tied to Steam in some way, but no logistics are anywhere near nailed down.
As for the company’s wearable computing initiatives, Ellsworth says that’s a much longer term goal; ‘two to five years” is the projection for anything that consumers will see, pending technology. Addressing images of her office that popped up online last week, she points out that “on any given day you could snap a photo of my office and find a variety of prototypes laying around.” She adds that her team has created prototypes in all stages of doneness — from the extremely crude to the nearly shippable — making that bizarre looking Xbox 360 controller all the more interesting. We may not have to wait too long to find out what it was, however, as Ellsworth and her team are documenting their creative process. She’s not sure how much info will get out when they’re ready to share, but if her YouTube past is any indication, we’re betting it’s quite a bit.