Earlier this year, PC game developer, Valve caused quite a stir in the gaming community when rumors began swirling that it was working on its own video game console that would run its popular Steam service. It's still unclear just how valid those rumors are, but the company's latest announcement certainly confirms that Valve has its eyes set on gamers' living rooms. The developer recently released a beta for Big Picture, a version of the Steam game client formatted specifically for use with home televisions and game controllers.
Valve has a well-earned reputation for providing new ways for gamers to use its services beyond just playing games on PCs - in just the past three months, the company has announced plans to bring non-game software to Steam and released its in-house animation tools to gamers for free. Connecting your computer to a TV is nothing new, but that usually just involves the TV acting as a monitor, which isn't exactly optimized for viewing from a couch on the other side of the room.
Big Picture on the other hand is specifically designed for relaxing in the comfort of your living room, while still having access to all the features of Steam through a TV. Users can browse through over 2500 titles to purchase, check out trailers and demos, chat with friends, and play games from their library. As a bonus, Valve has thrown in "a web browser for the TV that doesn't suck" (its words, not ours). The browser appears to let users scroll through websites by moving a reticule around the television screen and then zooming in on parts they want to read or see closer.
The interface was designed with a game controller in mind, so it has a simpler, dashboard-style menu for navigating everything on Steam. There's also a unique typing function, named "Daisywheel," which involves selecting groups of letters with the left analog stick and then pressing a corresponding button for each letter - much more intuitive than the usual method of picking letters from an on-screen QWERTY keyboard. Valve recommends the Logitech F710, the Razer Onza, or an Xbox 360 controller for use with Big Picture, though any controller with a similar button configuration could conceivably work. PC gamers who don't want to give up their mouse and keyboard though have the option of bringing them along in front of the television as well.
To access Big Picture on a television, users will simply need to connect a computer running Windows Vista or higher that is capable of running Steam, preferably with an HDMI cable. Users can use other connections, like wireless or VGA, but it really depends on what's available for their specific TVs and computers. After connecting the two devices, just load Steam on the computer and select "Big Picture" to start playing PC games on the TV. Gamers can also use Big Picture with their regular computer monitor if they want to use the simpler interface. Valve has also stated a version for Mac OS X is on the way.
Big Picture is certainly a nifty innovation on Valve's part, though it's hard to say just how much Steam users will embrace it. Steam's biggest fans are PC gamers, a group that typically prefers playing games in front of a desk and notoriously eschews controllers in favor of the traditional mouse and keyboard. Also, while a laptop is easy enough to connect, anyone with a desktop computer might find it a huge inconvenience to drag the tower into the living room for a Counter-Strike fix. Still, Big Picture definitely makes life easier for anyone looking for a quick solution for playing PC games on their television. With a dedicated PC, gamers might even be able to build an approximation of the Steam Box console that was rumored several months ago.
Big Picture is now available as a free beta for anyone using Steam.
Check out the video below to see how Big Picture transfers Steam onto a television screen.