Slow news week? Not anymore, my friends, for we have been spared. Read on!
You see, the New York Times visited Valve quite recently, and the resulting 3-page piece is not only very well made, but also contains a wealth of interesting new info, including the indirect reveal of Valve’s secretive hardware project. I’m going to do a quick run-through of the more interesting bits – so let’s get started!
First off, let’s take a look at the only picture they took of Valve’s wearable computing/virtual reality prototype, shown here being worn by Gordon Stoll, one of Valve’s newest engineers, currently working in their hardware development team. He previously spent the past 12 years working at Intel as a graphics architect on semiconductor technology. Behold:
The primary part of the assembly is, of course, the large set of goggles. It actually appears to be the NVIS nVisor ST50, albeit heavily modified. The rest of it… well, I guess the thing on the top is a customized miniature camera of some sort, though it doesn’t seem to be a part of the ST50′s actual setup. In fact, it’s got its own separate cable, and it doesn’t seem to be connected to the goggles themselves so I think it doesn’t have any real integration with them. It might be used for external head-tracking, or something.
Behind Gordon are eight different Augmented Reality markers. These are probably used for testing out the goggles’ capabilities – judging from their complexity, they might be meant to display 3D models of some sort, but I’m far from an augmented reality specialist, so don’t take my word for it!
Still, it definitely seems like the Valve hardware team has been messing around with wearable hardware very extensively. In any case, the New York Times reporter appears to have gotten a first-hand look at what it does… literally.
THIS is no Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
Every way I look, the scene shifts, the battle unfolds. I have a crazy contraption strapped to my head: a boxy set of goggles that looks like a 22nd-century version of a View-Master. It immerses me in a virtual world. I whirl one way and see zombies preparing to snack on my flesh. I turn another and wonder what fresh hell awaits.
Behold the future of video games. Or at least the future as envisioned by a bunch of gamers, programmers, tinkers and dreamers at the Valve Corporation here.
Well, it certainly sounds like they’ve got Left 4 Dead 2 running on it. Asides from that, there’s not much else we can extrapolate from this. But still, it’s interesting to read, considering the fact that we probably won’t get our hands on one of these things for a very, very long time.
Then comes the big announcement:
On Monday, the company will begin a public test of a new television-friendly interface, Big Picture, for buying Steam games and playing them on computers in the living room.
Great to hear! Really looking forward to seeing Steam on the big screen at last – this is a pretty huge step for Steam, as well as Valve itself. It might seem a bit sketchy, but hopefully once we start seeing and hearing more details on it, we’ll be able to tell why Valve has been spending so much time working on this thing.
Moving on, the article then discusses Valve’s flat, boss-less corporate structure and culture. This is all stuff we’ve heard countless times before, but there’s an amusing new anecdote revealed here, that I personally had never heard before:
Many desks at Valve are on wheels. After figuring out what they want to do, workers simply push their desks over to the group they want to join.
A few years ago, a Valve hire who had worked in special effects in Hollywood balked at wheeling his desk. The news reached Mr. Newell, who promptly picked up the desk himself and carried it to the new location, to the new employee’s embarrassment.
The man, whom Valve declined to name, is no longer with the company.
I’m fairly sure Gabe didn’t mean to embarass him. But I do hope he didn’t leave the company purely because of that little thing!
Next, Gabe touches very briefly on how or why people might actually… leave Valve – an unfathomable act to most of us.
In an interview in a conference room at Valve’s headquarters, Mr. Newell says that relatively few people have left Valve over the years. When they do, it’s often because a sick parent needs help. In one case, Valve moved an employee’s parents to the Seattle area, where one of them was also able to receive better cancer treatment.
“I get freaked out any time one person leaves,” says Mr. Newell, a bearded bear of a man with John Lennon-style glasses. “It seems like a bug in the system.”
That’s true. I’m glad to hear that few devs have left the company – I’d say this is definitely the case. And I believe even the developers that have left Valve (half of the original HL1 contingent, for instance) most likely did so amiably. Valve simply isn’t the kind of place where it’d go any other way.
Later, on page 2 of the story, Valve’s mysterious hardware project is discussed yet again:
Valve’s most striking recruiting campaign is a recent move to establish a hardware group to develop technologies that can enhance the playing of games. The company posted a job listing for an industrial designer, hinting that it planned to get into the computer business itself. “We’re frustrated by the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space, though, so we’re jumping in,” the listing read. “Even basic input, the keyboard and mouse, haven’t really changed in any meaningful way over the years.”
That job listing was posted up very recently – you can find it on Valve’s main Jobs page, in the left listing column, under “Industrial Designer“. That said, it actually wasn’t the first sign that Valve was up to something on the hardware front; certainly, we’ve known ever since Mike Abrash announced that he had established a small R&D contingent focusing on wearable computing, at Valve HQ.
Then in July, at the Casual Connect game conference in San Francisco, Gabe Newell, on stage with Ed Fries, the former head of Microsoft Games Studios, stated thus:
I can go into Mike Abrash’s office and put on this $70,000 system, and I can look around the room with the software they’ve written, and they can overlay pretty much anything, regardless of what my head is doing or my eyes are doing. Your eyes are actually troublesome buggers. But the input side is open-ended. How can you be robustly interacting with virtual objects when there’s nothing in your hands? Most of the ideas are really stupid because they reduce the amount of information you can express. One of the key things is that a keyboard has a pretty good data rate in terms of how much data you can express and how much intention you can convey.
More recently, Mike Abrash has been talking about this kind of stuff a lot more extensively, on his blog: Ramblings in Valve Time. There’s two posts in particular which I urge you to read if you’re interested in finding out more about the design philosophies and paradigms that Abrash might just be applying to Valve’s R&D projects. In any case, there certainly is a lot of insight to be found in there, so take a look.
The posts in question are: Why You Won’t See Hard AR Anytime Soon; and Two Possible Paths into the Future of Wearable Computing: Part 1.
But let’s put an end to this brief, but informative segway, and return to the subject at hand: the New York Times article.
Valve also recruited Jeri Ellsworth, an inventor and self-taught chip designer, whose pinball machines decorate Valve’s offices. Ms. Ellsworth recently gave a tour of Valve’s hardware laboratory, proudly showing off 3-D printers, a laser cutter and other industrial tools used to cobble together hardware prototypes. While interviewing for the job, she said, she was dubious about Valve’s interest in hardware.
“At one point, I said a hardware lab could be very expensive, it could be like a million dollars,” she recalled. “Gabe said, ‘That’s it?’ ”
Yeah, just in case you didn’t know Valve makes a lot of money – what a shocking surprise.
A DRIVING force behind Valve’s most far-out hardware project, wearable computing, is being led by Michael Abrash, a veteran of technology and game companies who helped Valve get off the ground in the 1990s by licensing its important game software from his employer at the time, Id Software. To Mr. Abrash, glasses that project games in front of players’ eyes are an obvious next step from today’s versions of wearable computers, smartphones and tablets.
While Google’s glasses will display texts and video conferences, Valve has greater technical challenges to overcome with augmented-reality games. It has to figure out how to keep stable an image of a virtual object (say, a billboard) that is meant to be attached to a real-world object (the side of a building) while a player moves around. Otherwise, the illusion would be shattered.
Moving on to page 3 of the story, we can find more information regarding the wearable computing project:
Mr. Abrash said glasses capable of credible augmented-reality games could be three to five years away, though he said virtual reality glasses would arrive sooner. He said Valve hadn’t decided whether it would make glasses itself. But its ultimate goal is to share its designs freely so other hardware companies can make glasses, too.
“Gabe has a saying, which is, ‘We will do what we need to do,’ ” Mr. Abrash says. “We don’t particularly want to be a company that makes hardware in large quantities. It’s not what we do.”
That is certainly a noble creed, although it bears more than a passing resemblance to the motto of a more sinister technology corporation. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of years from now, Valve really have become a significant hardware producer and distributor. Certainly, few could have possibly imagined that Valve would be the ones to conceive of the Steam digital distribution platform, one of the first of its kind. Even fewer could have possibly known that 10 years from its original announcement, Steam would become the greatest and most dominant digital game distribution platform on the planet.
So let’s keep an open mind – I’m sure that whatever Valve intends on doing in the hardware space, it will do so with great sense and reason. And I’m also pleasantly surprised to hear that Valve intends on freely sharing its hardware designs – you certainly don’t see that one very often, these days. Who knows what other creations will spin off from Valve’s unique developments?
Next, a very insightful and intriguing peek at how Valve actually functions:
Valve can do without many formalities of a traditional company because it’s privately held and controlled by Mr. Newell. He and Mike Harrington, who is no longer with the company, founded Valve in 1996 with the wealth they accumulated in Microsoft’s early days. The company has never raised money from outside investors, so it is under no external pressure to sell itself or go public.
Not that Mr. Newell hasn’t had opportunities to sell out. Valve has been pursued over the years by Electronic Arts, which would very likely have valued Valve at well over $1 billion had the talks progressed that far, said two people with knowledge of the discussion who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
Although Valve’s finances are private, Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, estimates that the company could be worth around $2.5 billion today.
I’d heard the infamous, bizarre rumors of a purported attempt by Google to acquire Valve in 2008, and while I always imagined EA had looked towards acquiring Valve, in the past – a solid confirmation is always quite surprising. And $1 billion is… well, obviously it costs a lot more than a hardware lab. Ironic how EA itself is now quietly exploring a sale of its own, following a staggering 37% drop in stock market capitalization, earlier this year. How the tides can turn!
The article ends with a very poignant statement by Gabe:
Mr. Newell said that there was a better chance that Valve would “disintegrate,” its independent-minded workers scattering, than that it would ever be sold.
“It’s way more likely we would head in that direction than say, ‘Let’s find some giant company that wants to cash us out and wait two or three years to have our employment agreements terminate,’ ” he says.
I think this says a lot about Valve’s raison d’être, so to speak. They would rather fall apart, then be assimilated by a giant company – and I really like that. If you ask me, more companies should work according to paradigms such as this one.
The thing is that if Valve ever went public on the stock market, or was ever purchased by a larger corporation, then they would lose what makes them great and what drives them to do the things they do: their independence; their dedication to no one but the customer; and their developmental patience.
These are all elements that make Valve stand out from all other major game companies and, in my opinion, they are elements that cannot survive on the stock market. Because once you’re on the stock market, then the customer no longer comes first – the stockholder does. And I believe that is the road to decadence, for a game studio. But I am sure that Valve will never go down this road – at least not for the foreseeable future. Valve is already profitable enough that I don’t really think it even needs to go on the stock market, so we needn’t worry!
In any case, that’s that. I skipped quite a lot of the original New York Times story, so I encourage you to go and read the whole thing here. And stay tuned right here, as we’ll keep you updated on any developments regarding today’s upcoming Big Picture Mode public beta!