How Valve built the controller of the future


It was at this point that the pieces of the puzzle came together. The problem was that Valve wanted a trackball that wasn’t a trackball. The solution was to make exactly that: a virtual trackball.

“Once we started looking at haptic feedback, we realised it could also help us hold on to all the things we had achieved when building around a trackball. The little electromagnets in there are so precise that they can emulate the momentum in a physical ball. The user can feel that the ball is spinning fast, or it’s slowing down, or it has stopped. So you can toss the virtual ball and have it feel like it’s spinning under your thumb, then plant your thumb on it and have it quickly come to rest again. And that channel of information makes it easy to use. It makes you aware, even before you’re seeing the results on screen, that you’re speeding up or turning or stopping."


After a few minutes of play on the Steam controller, one of the first things you notice is that you hold it differently. The lobes of the controller body may look Xbox-esque, but they feel different, pushing into your hand in a slightly alien way.

“We did a lot of testing on hand position”, explains Greg, “and we started with setups that were arranged in the generic shape of a gamepad with the trackpad just kind of slapped on top. That results in a hand position where your whole thumb, the flat pad of your thumb, lays across the pad, which is less precise because it’s trying to compute the absolute centre of that big region all the time. On the Steam controller, the touchpads have been dug in, and tilted to face you. They’ve also been tilted outward slightly: along with the shape of the controller body, that makes the natural position to place the tip of your thumb on the touchpad. It’s meant to help you position in a natural, relaxed way, with your thumb in the right position. This results in a much more precise control - orders of magnitude more precise.”

And Valve says its extensive testing indicates that a Steam controller could actually make you a better gamer.

“There’s something inherent about it”, says Greg, “that teaches you how to hold it right from the start. It’s not your larger muscle groups you’re using, it’s your fine motor skills. Thumbsticks have made it so that FPSs are mostly developed with a certain amount of auto-aim turned on, but with the Steam controller, it’s no longer necessary to have auto-aim because of the fidelity and resolution of the trackpad. By the time people get used to it, they report - and the data shows - that they quickly surpass what they would have been able to achieve with a thumbstick controller.”

READ MORE: Hands-on with the Steam Controller