If you aren’t a big gamer, you may have never heard of Steam. But with 50 million users, it’s a gargantuan PC gaming platform. Steam is a sort of iTunes or Xbox Live for the PC. And its founding company, Valve, has just released a beta called Steam Big Picture. With it, Valve, like every other platform in existence, wants to invade your television.
Big Picture lets you play games on your TV through a nicely framed interface, but that’s something you can already do by connecting an HDMI cord from a laptop to your television. Their more impressive feat is that they’ve designed everything to work—including full-blown web browsing—not with an awkward keyboard and mouse on your couch, but with a gamepad, like an Xbox 360 controller, including typing and web browsing.
"If we had instead let ourselves rely on mouse input, we thought our tendency would be to fall back to existing UI design choices taken from the desktop Steam client," Big Picture co-designer Greg Coomer tells me. "Smaller hit targets, higher density lists, scroll bars, and other PC-isms. The Big Picture UI we created is highly typographic, like the desktop client, but we think it’s far stronger on the big screen than it would have been if it had been designed for a mouse and keyboard alone."
If a gamepad-controlled browsing interface doesn’t sound like a big deal, realize that even Microsoft won’t let you browse the web on the Xbox 360, because it’s such a difficult thing to do. (And on PS3, the feat technically possible, but functionally impossible.) With Big Picture, Valve is attempting to one-up the former PC kings of the living room by taking on the living room’s biggest challenge first.
"Steam gamers are used to having their entertainment experience on a PC or Mac," explains Coomer. "And when that’s where you spend your time, you’re also used to having the web be a central part of the experience … So asking Steam users to go into the living room but leave all that behind seemed like a non-starter.
Steam’s TV browsing platform uses two unique UI tricks—both based upon the standard gamepad—to make web browsing possible. The first is a totally original typing scheme called the Daisywheel. Rather than presenting you with an onscreen keyboard whenever you encounter a text box, Big Picture deploys a rather clever cross between a rotary telephone and old school T9 cellphone texting. You aim up with an analog stick to select ABCD, and then each of the controller’s four buttons correspond with one of those letters. Each of these four-letter chunks appears like a flower petal, hence the whole daisy metaphor.
The result goes something like, aim up, click, aim right, click, aim diagonally, click—and it can actually be pretty quick. But I still found entering a full URL daunting. The Daisywheel may be a step better than an onscreen QWERTY, but it’s nowhere near as convenient as Xbox’s Bing voice search (when it works, of course). "Daisywheel is kind of fun to use, but nobody thinks it’s more fun than the games you want to play," Coomer admits. "Anyway, typing is a means to an end. Daisywheel is an attempt to be a significant improvement over things like a virtual onscreen QWERTY keyboary." (And in that regard, I’d agree that the Daisywheel succeeds.)
The second big innovation is the entire web browsing scheme itself. Big Picture uses what Valve is calling the world’s first "First Person" browser. It’s basically a reticle in the middle of your screen. But instead of lining up headshots, you’re aiming at links and pictures. The trick is that, rather than a mouse that you’re dragging across the screen (which never really works in the living room), you use the left analog stick to line up wherever you want to explore. Coomer explains:
Targeting links and page scrolling are two separate actions in a traditional web browser. But forcing users to do both of those with a game controller is a tall order. Our scheme merges both link-targeting and scrolling into one action. Before we arrived at that design direction, we looked at moving around a roaming cursor with a thumbstick, and it was not a great experience. Eventually we realized that it essentially felt backwards. The motion and acceleration of the cursor had to be slowed down to be usable, and when testing it out, that configuration forced unfavorable comparisons with browsing via a mouse. But when you flip the two around, panning the page and letting the cursor be stationary, then all of a sudden it feels right. Especially to gamers who have built up years’ worth of muscle-memory and expectation. That’s what led us to call it a ‘First Person’ browser.
It sounds gimmicky, sure, but almost immediately, I find using the First Person browser to be second nature. It feels like I have total control over exactly where I’m aiming and scrolling on a page. Zeroing on a link is absolute cake—even easier than holding a Wiimote steady, and every bit as intuitive as my mouse. Of course there’s good reason I’m so comfortable. How many hours have I spent playing FPS games, aiming with the left stick of a gamepad with a reticle at the center of the screen? This same idea translates to zooming, which works the same way as a good old, ultra-violent sniper rifle in any shooter. You click Y to zoom one of three levels of tightness (like an iPhone, but sadly not quite so intelligently), or you use the right analog stick to zoom in manually like a camera.
All of this said, as successfully as Valve executed their new control tricks, I did find myself getting lost within Steam’s sometimes inconsistent window structure. Clicking the D-pad left or right takes you forward or back in your browser. Okay, makes sense. Clicking up takes you to a helicopter-style summary of the tabs you have open. Neat, got it. Clicking down from that helicopter view … does nothing. You have to select a window to continue. So it’s hard to ever settle into the navigation scheme. I’m never sure that I can totally trust it, and that’s devastating in a living room, especially. A remote control will always change the channel or the volume. That’s why we love our remote controls.
There’s also an odd quirk. While Valve cleverly leveraged the controls gamers were already used to, they forgot about one big thing. The Windows-compatible Xbox 360 controller that most gamers will use comes with its own burdens, like the B button. On Xbox, the B button always, always, always takes you back. Not just from one website to the last you’d visited, but back out of an app screen to a dashboard. It walks you down the directory tree in a really addictive way.
In Big Picture, Valve acknowledged this Xbox gamer twitch in the wrong way. They just disabled the B button altogether. And to a gamer, it’s like trying to fire a gun with the safety on. I responsively reached for B again and again, always punished by inaction. Is there anything intuitive about B meaning back? No. But as long as Valve is leveraging the tacit standards of the gaming industry to create a better living room UI, they might as well borrow/steal them all.
As of today, Big Picture is in PC beta, with new features along with a Mac beta promised to come. And while it’s not the platform your mom will ever use, it is interesting to see a UI designed completely around the avid gamer—a UI shorthand not so dissimilar from a coder’s keyboard shortcuts championed in the living room. Plus, given that it’s a free extension of any computer you own, unlike a game console, Apple TV, Google TV, or the Wii U that’ll all cost a few bucks, Steam will take its share of the interactive TV market, whether it’s all that good or not. (Luckily, they care that it’s good.)
"We overwhelmingly feel, especially with this release, that we have lots to learn. As Christen Coomer, another designer on the project, recently said elsewhere: Our design process really gets going once our products are in customers’ hands," Coomer tells me. "We have lots of features to add and many design issues to address both during and after the beta. Meanwhile we hope people are having a great time with it. We’re reading all the feedback and making plans as we go."