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Valve explains how it built an orb out of Steam Deck OLED prototypes rather than making Half-Life 3, vowing 'we will construct an orb at any opportunity'

 Valve Steam Deck OLED orb.
Valve Steam Deck OLED orb.

To celebrate the launch of the Steam Deck OLED late last year, Valve constructed an entire orb built from 100 OLED prototypes it had "laying around the office". Well, to celebrate and create the launch trailer using practical photography rather than some rubbish built inside a computer.

And, to commemorate that feat, Valve has created a behind the scenes timelapse video and blog post detailing exactly how it made the orb, and how it got all those 100 Steam Deck OLED prototypes working in unison to light the scene in camera.

Because that's where it all came from. The idea to do the launch trailer for the new handheld in-house was something Valve came to early on, but it was only once it started to see the new OLED screens in the office that they realised just how bright their new panels were.

"Startlingly bright. So bright, in fact, we wondered if we could use actual Steam Deck OLEDs as the only light sources to light our launch trailer. That seemed fun enough—and dumb enough—to try, so we got to work."

Using the 100 prototype units Valve had in the office to light a central "hero" device the team then had to figure out exactly how they were going to surround it.

"You're likely thinking exactly what we were: the only way to create this effect was to construct a large, metal orb."

The entire shopping list for the shoot is something that only Valve would be able to lay its collective hands on for such an endeavour:

  • 100 "old OLED prototypes laying around the office."

  • A combination custom-milled and prefabricated aluminum frame, designed and built by folks in the Valve hardware prototyping lab.

  • Two bonded network switches, long-ago retired from Steam. (That's right! There is a chance that the brain of our orb was once the very same server on which you no-scoped a fool or downloaded Doki Doki Literature Club.)

  • A mobile networking rack left over from an old The International we found in the corner.

  • Every spare network cable we could grab in the IT offices.

  • Dozens of Deckmate Steam Deck mounts (an off-the-shelf Deck peripheral made and sold by a member of the Steam Deck community)

  • Hundreds of tiny 3D printed clips, mounts, and brackets to hold it all together.

Aside from the physical challenges of building an entire Steam Deck OLED orb frame, the method Valve used to control all the screens is kinda fascinating. Because the Deck is just a Linux PC, there are off the shelf solutions to getting a bunch of networked devices displaying the same content in a low latency way. So, it used OBS with a specific plugin called NDI that makes it straightforward to sending video around the LAN.

In order to deal with the fact that it's streaming video onto an orb, however, it needed to create a video template that negated any distortion. And so, using the CAD files involved in manufacturing the original orb frame, Valve flattened it out so it could map the locations of each of the OLED prototype screens in flat space and made a high resolution After Effects file to animate into.

And it looks kinda bizarre in the editor, but amazing in the orb. And in the final results, too, whether it's a direct gameplay loop, or the actual trailer itself.

But an orb's not just for launch either; Valve couldn't bear to dismantle the setup after it shot the trailer and so has installed it in the lobby of its offices "where we presume people from around the globe will make the pilgrimage to bask in its glow. Well, once we plug it back it in."

Though given it will probably be running those OLED panels at peak brightness it will be worth making sure to keep those screens refreshing. You don't want 100 Steam Deck OLED displays suffering burn-in right there in the lobby, after all.