Valve’s Secret Project is a Wearable Computer
Following rumors and speculation about Valve’s foray into the consumer electronics sector with the Steambox, a recent blog post by developer Michael Abrash has revealed that Valve’s entry is beyond the normal idea of consoles.
Valve’s no-hierarchical corporate structure allows employees to pick up ideas and convert them into projects following extensive R&D and research. Michael Abrash is one such Valve employee who has taken employee and consumer feedback to build what he thought would be an “initial creative act.”
“That, and conversations with various people around the company, kicked me into a different mode of thought, which eventually led me to a surprising place: wearable computing,” he offers.
“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, probably through glasses or contacts, but for all I know through some kind of more direct neural connection. And I’m pretty confident that platform shift will happen a lot sooner than 20 years – almost certainly within 10, but quite likely as little as 3-5, because the key areas – input, processing/power/size, and output – that need to evolve to enable wearable computing are shaping up nicely, although there’s a lot still to be figured out.”
“Of course, hardware is only as useful as the software running on it, and there’s a vast web of intertwined issues and questions to be resolved about how the combined hardware-software system might work. 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 (and I hope to be posting about some of them soon); in fact, what it reminds me of, but on a larger scale, is Quake, where we had to figure out 3D graphics, client-server Internet networking, file formats, pretty much everything from scratch. Indeed, I think this has the potential to be, like Quake, a technological inflection point after which everything has changed.”
“After I had thought all this through and done a lot of research, I came to the conclusion that it would be valuable to spend some time to see if wearable computing was an area that Valve should get into as it developed, so I ran my findings and thinking past a lot of people I respect at Valve. The consensus was that investigating wearable computing was an experiment worth running; the main concern was that the experiment needed to be structured so there were clear tests for success and failure, and so that we’d get useful information in either case. But no one told me what to do, and there were no official approvals that I had to obtain; once I had gathered feedback and thought this through to my satisfaction, I just went ahead and started the project.”
“To be clear, this is R&D – it doesn’t in any way involve a product at this point, and won’t for a long while, if ever – so please, no rumors about Steam glasses being announced at E3. It’s an initial investigation into a very interesting and promising space, and falls more under the heading of research than development. The Valve approach is to do experiments and see what we learn – failure is fine, just so long as we can identify failure quickly, learn from it, and move on – and then apply it to the next experiment. The process is very fast-moving and iterative, and we’re just at the start. How far and where the investigation goes depends on what we learn.”
This blog post comes following Valve recruiting Electronic Engineers in a recent job posting. Abrash is excited to build a team of electronic engineers to help him bring this idea to life. “If you’re excited at the idea of diving into wearable computing, and you’re the right sort of person, then you’re why I wrote this post. We want you here – and you should want to be here; read back over this post and see if that isn’t so. Shoot me an e-mail, and we’ll go from there,” he adds.