At CES 2013, Nvidia Project Shield & Valve Piston Offer Peeks At Gaming’s Future

Everyone in the gaming industry currently has their eyes on two companies that have long been major players in hardware and software, but have never made an official foray into gaming platforms until now.

Graphic processor maker Nvidia and gaming developer Valve have begun outlining their visions for the future at this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), giving the world a peek under the hood of forthcoming devices they hope will someday become entertainment mainstays.

Nvidia is in the late stages with codename "Project Shield," a portable Android-based device fitted with a mishmash of the company's hardware. Resembling an Xbox controller connected to an HD touch-screen display, Shield is bound to shakeup the lackluster handheld market that is being slowly crushed by the rise of mobile gaming on smartphones.

On the other hand, Valve, the creators of the Steam distribution network and the Source engine that powers Half-Life and Counter Strike, is taking its time, and for good reason. The company is aiming to not only give consumers an all-powerful living room console, known on the Web as the "Steam Box," but also a seamless way to tie together every device in the home using screen-mirroring technology like Miracast.

No such Steam Box will hit shelves in 2013, says Valve's Ben Krasnow, but the company is at CES to meet with hardware developers. And the team has brought along a few prototypes that have spurred the rumor mill and led them to drop a few details.

Both companies have big ideas, and if there are any two players in the industry that can pull off revolutionary changes, it's Nvidia with its hardware track record and Valve with its Steam network. Either way, video games — and where and how we play them — will only get better as two of the biggest names in PC gaming move beyond the mouse and keyboard.

Nvidia Shield: A Handheld With Big Potential

When Nvidia began to see its role in traditional console gaming slowly squeezed out by rival chipmaker AMD, whose Radeon processors have steadily captured more of the market (including the Xbox 360 and the Wii U's Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU), the natural response was to develop a fully packaged product targeted at a specific gaming niche. Shield is that device.

Marketed as a handheld, but with big-screen potential, it will be able to wirelessly stream games to your television. That puts Nvidia in the somewhat precarious position of having to market the device somewhere between casual handheld gaming you can do on the go and the HD, graphics-heavy gaming you do on a big screen. So there is no telling yet how well it will perform, or if will come even close to competing with the next- or even current-gen consoles.

There is reason to wonder whether the Shield's insides are up to the task. Using the Android Jellybean operating system, it will run a custom 72-core (72-core!) Nvidia GeForce GPU and a quad-core A15 CPU, the newest additions to the company's Tegra processor line, while the touch-screen with be able to push 720p visuals. That sounds great for high-end Android games currently running on tablets, but who knows how far Nvidia will push the envelope. The possibility of Shield being used to play games equivalent to those on of current-generation game consoles remains up in the air.

There's no word yet on whether the screen is detachable, though it would certainly make for an interesting move if it became a second screen while you gamed on your television, effectively bringing Nvidia into Wii U territory.

As for Shield games, Nvidia lags a bit  in terms of the breadth and quality offered by its TegraZone, which right now mainly offers up solid old-school ports and Android favorites. But if the company can create the right kind of developer interest in the device's hardware capabilities, Project Shield has the potential for great handheld games - and maybe even some console-quality titles. Just don't get too excited: Nvidia did not announce a release date for Project Shield.

Valve Plans To Extend The PC Gaming Ecosystem

While Nvidia focuses on the handheld market, Valve is carefully crafting a full-blown overhaul of the PC gaming ecosystem. What's being thrown around the Internet as the "Steam Box" is known as "Big Foot" inside the company, said Valve founder Gabe Newell in a recent interview. And at CES this week, prototypes showed up of an intriguing new device - though not officially confirmed to be the same as what Newell discussed.

Codenamed Piston and developed with Xi3, the small, blue rectangular console was built to port Steam to bigger screens using Valve's Big Picture TV streaming service. It's also pitched as a "development-stage computer game system," so there's really no telling where it stands in Valve's Steam Box vision.

Piston could be the first in a long line of many prototypes Valve works up with a number of different hardware partners. But one thing is for sure: Newell and crew aren't banking on just one device to compete with the Xbox and PlayStation. Instead, Valve will keep tinkering until it knows it's ready to make a move beyond the PC.

Despite the mystery regarding the Steam Box, Xi3's Piston, "Big Foot" and so on, Newell did offer some concrete details in his CES sit-down.

After struggling with the consumer issues and philosophy behind open and closed systems, Newell says, the company decided on a Linux-based device that hands a huge amount of freedom to the consumer. Users will be able to install Windows - or any kind of software - if they want.

And there is in fact a "Little Foot" mobile component, Valve's take on what mobile and tablet gaming need to succeed in a seamless gaming ecosystem. As for controllers, Valve is staying away from motion and trying to incorporate what Newell believes is the future of innovative gaming philosophy: biometrics, including the possibility of wearable devices.

Valve could release a whole suite of devices that route the Steam ecosystem on multiple screens in the next two years. Newell was bold enough to suggest that the next-generation GPUs could support as many as eight simultaneous screens!

"So you could have one PC and eight televisions and eight controllers and everybody getting great performance out of it. We're used to having one monitor, or two monitors — now we're saying let's expand that a little bit," he said. The ambitious effort is already generating some skepticism, but it will take this kind of effort to push the boundaries and once again give the term "next-generation" some legitimate weight.