LAS VEGAS--As reported by Kotaku earlier this evening, modular PC vendor Xi3 announced an new project funded by PC game maker and digital distribution service provider Valve Software. The company says it isn't discussing many details about the project, other than the fact that it's "designed specifically to support both Steam and its Big Picture mode for residential and LAN party computer gaming on larger high-def screens."
Steam, if you're unfamiliar, is Valve Software's dominant PC gaming digital distribution service. Big Picture Mode is Valve's new feature that provides a TV-friendly overlay to Steam. The idea is that it makes it easy to play PC games from your couch.
If you're wondering why Valve might want to invest in a less-well-known PC company like Xi3, the reason might very likely be due to the long-rumored, recently confirmed Steam Box. Valve has not discussed the details of the Steam Box publicly, but rumors have suggested since March that such a system represents Valve's aim to up-end the gaming console market with a living room-friendly PC gaming machine built around Steam.
As much as the details of the Steam Box have been scarce, so is any in-depth information about the Xi3 announcement. I spoke with a company representative briefly at CES, and only learned a little bit more than was mentioned in the press release.
The project that Xi3 is working on for Valve is code named Piston. Xi3's own higher-end 7 Series system will form the basis for Piston, but the company says that the specs and the final look of the product will be different than its existing product. For what it's worth, the Xi3 7 Series is based on AMD's R-Series APUs, which are quad core processing chips that go up to 3.2GHz, with AMD's 384 core Radeon HD 7660G graphics core built-in. The Series 7 supports up to 8GB of RAM, and can output video at resolutions as high as 4,096x2,160 pixels from a system that requires only 40 watts of power and measures only 4.27 inches by 3.66 inches by 3.66 inches.
Other than that, Xi3 isn't talking. It won't comment on the size of the investment from Valve, nor is it offering a release date, a price, or even the operating system. If you've followed the Steam Box rumor mill, the fact that a Steam Box might not use Windows shouldn't surprise you.
Valve CEO Gabe Newell has been vocal about his disdain for Windows 8, calling it "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space." Among his reasons for that stance are likely Microsoft's efforts to lock down the Windows retail ecosystem. You can still download Steam to a Windows 8 PC and purchase games via the desktop application, but Steam will not launch on Microsoft's new Live Tile interface, presumably because Microsoft wants greater control, and greater revenue share, of any new Windows apps. You can understand why Valve might have a problem with that arrangement.
The most obvious alternative for a Steam Box will be Linux. Valve has put effort into getting its games to run on Linux. It also has enough influence with developers to encourage future games to support a new operating system.
What the final result of Piston or a Steam Box might look like will, of course, remain to be seen. But if any company has the power to shift PC gaming away from Microsoft, Valve is the most likely one to do it.