Until yesterday, we were convinced that the Steam Box was going to be announced in the second half of 2013. Maybe in one of the many events dedicated to video games, perhaps at the E3. But no: on the 8th of January 2013, the Steam Box unexpectedly appeared on the showfloor of the CES 2013 in Las Vegas.
This morning, colleagues back in the office who were following the event from Europe sent an email, inside a single sentence: "Please check if that's true".
We headed straight to Valve's booth, and we saw a unique and unforgettable scene: Gabe Newell, looking tired, on a couch and intent to play Team Fortress 2 alone. Apparently, though, Valve did not have time for us. And Gabe seemed really busy with his single-player experience on a multiplayer title.
So it was to Xi3, who'd dedicated fifteen minutes to us, revealing all the news about this much-talked Steam Box - or at least one of them. A later Gabe Newell interview suggests there's multiple hardware of similar design in production.
Xi3's version is named Piston. It seems an appropriate name, considering that Steam's logo is a connecting-rod, that part of the engine that connects the crankshaft to... the piston.
The Piston, in this case, is a small computer based on Unix/Linux and encased in an aluminum shell of about 10x10x15 centimeters. The internal components can be changed in a very simple way: you open the shell, take out the board from a slot and replace it. In this way you can upgrade your components without having to buy a whole new device.
"Gaming consoles require you to spend more money than necessary," told David Politis "but with Piston, you can replace only what you really need to replace." All can be done in a few simple steps, and the only knowledge required is being able to use a screwdriver.
At the moment, Xi3 prefer not to talk about the technical specifics of the product, but we can assume it will be powerful enough to play most of the games in the Steam's catalogue, as Xi3 doesn't hide the fact that Valve has invested a considerable amount of money in the company.
In any case, we managed to take a look at the sockets on the motherboard of the prototype they've shown us, including 6 USB ports, two eSATA sockets and the usual three plugs for the sound (Speaker / Mic / Line-in). In addition, we've seen a DVI output, HDMI, Toslink and an Ethernet port. The hard drive is a solid-state memory and it can be replaced with ease.
Xi3 has unveiled its product with great pride, even if this is not a company primarily focused on gaming. "What's the name of that conference in Europe?" Politis asked when we turned our camera off. "Oh, right, Gamescom. I don't want to make an announcement, but I think we should go." We completely agree with him.
At the moment, it's too early to say whether Piston - or Steam Box - will be a revolution. The fact that this is a Linux/Unix device, in fact, may put some limits on the project, considering the limited catalogue of games available on this platform. At the same time, however, it's clear that Valve is moving towards Linux, and at the time of the launch of Piston - that will occur in 2013 - the catalogue could begin to assume significant dimensions. Or, again, they might find a way to make most of the games on Steam compatible with this small rectangular piece of aluminum just in time for the launch.
For now, I can't hide a certain optimism towards this project. It's clear that, from today, there's something new and important in the gaming industry. Time will tell us if the 8th of January 2013 will be remembered as a key date in the history of videogames.
GRTV: David Politis Interview