PC gaming suddenly hot at CES 2014

Prototypes show off bold new directions in gaming hardware and virtual reality.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
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3 min read
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LAS VEGAS -- While the computer category itself was overshadowed at CES 2014 by flexible TVs and high-tech wristbands, there was one unexpected bright spot -- some inventive new ideas about PC gaming.

With the next generation of living-room consoles only a few months old, it would be easy to put PC gaming on the back burner for a while, but companies at CES are instead taking some inventive, forward-thinking approaches to this decades-old category.

PC gaming in the living room
The biggest is probably Valve's lineup of Steam Machine hardware. The concept is for a compact gaming PC that runs the app-specific Steam OS to play games from Steam's huge PC game library on a living-room TV. New for CES 2014 was a list of the first wave of PC hardware partners actually making the Steam Machine hardware, including Alienware, Origin PC, and Falcon Northwest.

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Some of these machines will be simple Steam OS set-top boxes, while others are (more expensive) small-chassis gaming PCs that will also dual-boot into Windows. The entire Steam Machine concept and ecosystem is still unproven, but it has the potential to really disrupt PC gaming, especially when combined with Valve's inventive new PC game controller.

Immersive virtual worlds
Another piece of new PC gaming technology that thinks bigger than new video cards and CPUs is the Oculus Rift. This set of stereoscopic 3D goggles has been through several prototype versions over the past couple of years (I first tried the Rift in 2012), but the version on display at CES 2014 takes a big step forward, adding new positional tracking, thanks to an external Webcam.

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Getting hands (or eyes) on with it again, the generation-to-generation change is impressive. Turning around in your chair and looking behind you to reveal a panoramic virtual world while wearing the headset was unexpectedly mind-blowing. When will a consumer version be ready? What games will support it? What will the PC hardware requirements be? The list of questions about Oculus is just as big as its potential.

Modular gaming PCs
Razer had an unexpected prototype on the show floor. Project Christine is a concept for a modular gaming PC, in which graphics cards, processors, and hard drives all sit in uniform capsules and swap in and out of a larger frame.

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It's an interesting concept, but would require a lot of reverse engineering to make practical for off-the-shelf components. Still, Razer has previously impressed with its initial steps into gaming laptops, and the company is not afraid to take risks.

Origin PC is also breaking from PC gaming desktop tradition with its new Genesis and Millennium systems. This is the first custom-designed desktop case from the company, which had previously used the same off-the-shelf chassis as other boutique PC makers.

Origin PC

The Genesis/Millennium case is especially ambitious. Origin PC calls the concept behind them "variable mounting," which means the motherboard and components can be seated inside in four different configurations (ATX, inverted ATX, and so on). That gives you tons of options for fitting in different components and cooling hardware, and lets you orient the windowed side panel on either the left or right.

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The Millennium is the basic case, while the Genesis takes the same chassis and adds a bottom compartment that makes the system taller and can contain extra cooling fans or hard drives.

Think different
Each of the above examples represents a completely different take on PC gaming. Some take Windows out of the equation (or at least relegate it to dual-OS status), while others take controls far beyond the traditional keyboard and mouse. Will any of them break through to console-style mainstream acceptance? That's unclear, but at least these bold experiments show that people are finally thinking differently about PC gaming.