Playing WINE games with the Steam Controller

While I do the majority of my gaming through Steam on Ubuntu, there’s always a few games around that I’d like to play and aren’t out for Linux, so I play then through WINE.  This morning I discovered that it’s  possible to play WINE games with your Steam Controller.  As usual with WINE, your mileage may vary, but here’s what I did.

Firstly, you can’t just install the Windows version of Steam.  I don’t know if it would recognise the controller, but even if it would, Steam wont run Big Picture Mode if it’s running in WINE, so you’re out of luck there.

The trick is that you can add launchers for non-steam games (or actually, any application) to your steam library.  These will run with the Steam Overlay, and therefore will support Steam Controller configurations.  To do this, you’ll need to create a .desktop launcher file for your game.  You can do this with a text editor, but I used Arronax.

arronaxSet a title and an icon if you like, then for the command, enter the command to launch your game using WINE.  If you’re using the default WINE prefix, then this can be as simple as:

wine ~/.wine/path/to/your/game.exe

However, I tend to install WINE games using PlayOnLinux, which installs games into separate prefixes, with appropriate versions of WINE.  This means the default command doesn’t cut it.  Instead I created the following a shell script, and set the .desktop file’s command to execute that shell script.  Here’s an example that I used:

export WINEPREFIX=/home/steam/.PlayOnLinux/wineprefix/DiabloIII
export WINELOADER=/home/steam/.PlayOnLinux/wine/linux-x86/1.7.15/bin/wine
export WINESERVER=/home/steam/.PlayOnLinux/wine/linux-x86/1.7.15/bin/wineserver
"$WINELOADER" "$WINEPREFIX/drive_c/Program Files/Diablo III/Diablo III Launcher.exe"

You can find the appropriate wine version by looking at the configuration dialogue for the game in PlayOnLinux.  Note that PlayOnLinux can generate a .desktop files for a game, but these launch PlayOnLinux, and don’t appear to work when launched through Steam.

Once you’ve created your shell script and .desktop file, launch Steam in desktop mode, access your library and select “Add a game… > Add a Non-Steam Game…”.  This will show a list of applications in /usr/share/applications.  Click “Browse” and find the .desktop file you have created, then press “Add Selected Programs”.  The game will now appear in your library.

Launch Big Picture Mode, and select the game from your library.  You can now configure the controller as normal, and the Steam Overlay will launch with the game, giving you full support for the controller!

Steam Controller Review

It’s been about a year since I built my Steam Machine, and since then I’ve tried various solutions for playing PC games on my TV while sitting on my sofa.  These have included:

  • A Gamecube controller (my all-time favourite gamepad), which is great but doesn’t have as many buttons as games expect,
  • An XBox 360 controller which is the de facto standard controller for games with gamepad support, but doesn’t work with all games.
  • A Wii Remote, which works for games that need a mouse pointer, but is tiring to use for long periods and tricky to configure well.
  • When I’ve been really desperate, my Rii wireless mouse/keyboard, which is OK in a pinch but far from ideal.

The promise of the Steam Controller is that it “lets you play your entire collection of Steam games on your TV—even the ones designed without controller support in mind.”  When this was announced it seemed like to Holy Grail of input devices, the solution to all of my problems, so of course when I heard I could pre-order one this year for delivery a month before they went on general sale, I snapped one up.  I’ve now racked up a good view hours of gaming on games with various types of control systems, so does it fulfil it’s promise? TL;DR.

The hardware

A steam controller in its box.

The Steam Controller


The first analogue stick appeared on the N64 controller, then the Playstation Dual Shock controller was released with 2 analogue sticks.  Since then, controllers have pretty much featured 2 analogue sticks, 4 shoulder buttons/triggers, a D-pad, 4 general purpose buttons, and a couple of “system” buttons.  Each has had it’s own USPs, and Valve have clearly taken inspiration from a lot of places. Some similarities I’ve noticed are:

  • The Gamecube controller’s “cradling” grip.
  • The Gamecube’s 2-stage analogue+digital triggers.
  • Touch pads, seen on the PS4 and PS Vita.
  • A gyroscope (seen in some Gameboy games, the PS3 sixaxis and the Wii Remote Plus).

However, unlike any of these gamepads, the Steam Controller does away with the dual analogue stick/d-pad set up in favour of a single analogue stick, and 2 clickable touch pads, 1 under each thumb.  This allows for similar accuracy to using a touchpad or trackball, an an immense amount of versitibility.  The right pad is flat, while the left pad features an cross-shaped indentation, allowing it to easily emulate a D-Pad.

As well as the standard shoulder buttons, triggers and general purpose A/B/X/Y buttons, the Steam Controller sports a left and right “grip” button, which sits under your two smallest fingers on each hand. Squeezing the controller activated this button, which can be used in a number of ways, as we’ll see below.

The N64 controller features an optional “Rumble Pak”, which introduced what we might now call haptic feedback to console controllers.  All controllers since have featured something similar, merrily vibrating the let us know when we take damage or something near us explodes.  The Steam Controller doesn’t have a “rumble” feature in the same way, but it features a remarkable haptic feedback system for it’s analogue controls.  The analogue stick and triggers can be configured with an actuation threshold, which will provide you with a “clunk” when you cross it.  Similarly, the touch pads can vibrate slightly as your thumb moved over them, giving you a sensation similar to a mouse’s scroll wheel, or a trackball.

None of these features is in itself revolutionary, but the way they’re used together, and crucially the way the software allows you to configure them, creates a completely game-changing experience.

The software

The Steam Controller is not a gamepad.  It’s an input device that can be used to emulate a gamepad, a mouse, a keyboard, or bits of each at the same time.

A screenshot of the controller configuration interface from Steam Big Picture Mode.

Steam Controller Configuration interface.

This is all handled by an addition to Steam’s user interface.  When you select a game in Steam Big Picture Mode, you have the option to configure your controller for that game.  This provides you with an interface that lets you map each pad, stick, button and click to a control on one of the aforementioned devices.  I won’t go into detail, but spending half an hour exploring the configuration options available is mindblowing.

A screenshot showing the options available for configuring the controller's touch pads.

Touch pad configuration options

Configuring a gamepad to emulate a mouse or keyboard is certainly nothing new (I’ve used qjoypad and WiiCan to do similar things in the past), but nothing before has had the flexibility and ease of use that Steam has achieved.  I’ve certainly never seen a controller configuration tool that you can use with the controller you’re configuring.

Once you’ve configured your controller (either manually, using one of Steam’s templates, or using a configuration shared by the Steam community), you launch the game and Steam activates your configuration.  You can even tweak the configuration in-game or call up the innovative dual-pointer on-screen keyboard by pressing the Steam button on the controller and bringing up the Steam Overlay.

The games

I’ve played a number of games with different control systems to really test out the Steam Contoller’s ability to play any game.  Here’s a bit about how the controller can be set up to play each type of game:

First-Person Shooter (Borderlands 2).

Borderlands 2 has gamepad support, so the simplest way to play with the Steam controller is to use the “Gamepad” preset.  This uses the left touchpad as a D-pad, and the right touchpad as an analogue stick. However, to really get the best experience, you can use the “Gamepad with precision aim” preset, which uses the right pad as a trackball, giving you a mouse-look style experience.

The grip buttons are mapped as extra A and X buttons, which gives you the nice option of keeping your thumbs on the movement controls while using those functions.

Real-Time Strategy (Xenonaughts)

RTS games rely on you having a mouse pointer to select units and issue commands.  For games like this, the right pad can be used to control the mouse pointer, while the triggers provide the mouse buttons.  Other buttons can be bound to keyboard keys used for selecting pre-defined groups of units, or switching to different views.

Third-Person Action/Adventure (Don’t starve)

As with Borderlands 2, Don’t starve has controller support, so using the Gamepad preset is all you need.  In an non-FPS game, the precision aim option isn’t so useful.

First-Person Adventure, not controller aware (Minecraft)

Many first-person PC games are controlled with the WASD keys for movement, and the mouse to control the camera.  The keys within easy reach of WASD are used for other functions like jumping and running.  Steam provides a “Keyboard (WASD) and mouse” preset with this configuration in mind – the rest of the buttons can be tweaked as required for the particular game.

Point-and-click adventure (Deponia)

As the name suggests, these games rely almost entirely on the mouse, with a few keys used for opening inventory and menus.  I found a community configuration for Deponia that had the mouse and just the few other functions required mapped to the buttons.

Isometric RPG (Pillars of Eternity)

Once again, these games tend to be mouse-driven to tell your characters where to go and what attacks to use, as well as to manage inventory and equipment, and select dialogue options.  A community configuration provided a nice mouse set up, with the added bonus of the right touch pad being used to move the view around (usually this might be controlled by right-clicking the mouse or using arrow keys).  One slight downfall on this sort of game is that they often make use of a large number of use-defined hotkeys, of which the controller is limited.  However, it is possible to use the grip buttons as modifiers, so “A” could be bound to the “1” key, “Left Grip+A” to the “5” key, and “Right Grip+A” to the “9” key, allowing for more hotkeys to be used.

First-person shooter, Steam Controller Support (Portal 2)

A final bonus of the Steam Controller is that Valve are making an API available for developers to bake support right into the game.  In this case, rather than mapping to gamepad/mouse buttons or keyboard keys, the controller can be mapped straight to available functions in the game (e.g. “Orange Portal” instead of “Mouse 1″).  Also, the game can display appropriate hints like “Left Grip to duck” rather than “Button 15 to duck”.  I expect we’ll be seeing more of this.

The verdict

I’m yet to find a game that I’m not comfortable playing with the Steam Controller and the right configuration.  While certain aspects of the controller take some getting used to, Valve have excelled themselves, to the point where I wouldn’t even consider using another controller for my PC gaming. 10/10.

Setting up a Steam Controller on Ubuntu

I recently received my pre-ordered Steam Controller, which I’ve be itching to use with my home-built HTPC/Steam Machine.  I do all my gaming (and everything else) on Ubuntu, and discovered at that the time the pre-releases were shipped, there was a bit of tweaking to do to get the controller working.  Thanks go to this Ask Ubuntu question and this Steam Community thread.  If you are using Ubuntu 15.10 or later, steps 1-3 shouldn’t be necessary, and hopefully a fix will be in place by the time the controllers are on general sale.

  1. Before you plug in your controller, edit (or create) file /lib/udev/rules.d/99-steam-controller-perms.rules.  This already existed on my system.  Edit to to contain at least these lines (it may also contain others):
    SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTRS{idVendor}=="28de", MODE="0666" 
    KERNEL=="uinput", MODE="0660", GROUP="yourusernamehere", OPTIONS+="static_node=uinput"

    Make sure you change “yourusernamehere” to the user you run steam as, or if there are several, the name of a group containing them all.  This will ensure that the controller is correctly recognised and can emulate a gamepad.

  2. Run sudo apt-get install python3-autopilot.  This will install some packages which will add you to a group with write access to /dev/uinput.  This is necessary for the controller to work properly.
  3. Reboot
  4. Plug in your steam controller dongle.
  5. Press the Steam button. It should beep and light up (if not, check the batteries are installed).
  6. Launch Steam.  You should see a notification that your controller is detected.
  7. Launch Big Picture Mode (if you don’t, Steam will tell you to).
  8. Ensure the Steam overlay is enabled in Settings -> In-game.  If not, your controller configurations will simply not work.
  9. Select a game, pick a controller configuration, and play!

Configuring pass on Windows

In my last post, I concluded that pass wasn’t any good if you use Windows due to the lack of browser extension and flaky apps.  I’ve since discovered how to set up both the command-line pass client and the Firefox extension on Windows, so thought it was worth another post to explain what I did.  Note, this isn’t a straightforward process.  You’re probably only interested in this if you primarily use a Unix-like system, but need Windows support too.  pass isn’t currently an ideal solution if you primarily use Windows.  This also assumes you’re running 64-bit Windows 7, other versions may have slightly different paths in the commands.


To run pass on Windows, you need GPG, Cygwin and some Cygwin packages.

For GPG, download and install GPG4Win.

Next, download Cygwin and run the setup.  Install the following packages: git, make, automake, tree.  If you are using git to sync your password store, you may also want to install ssh.

Run the Cygwin shell and create an alias for gpg:

alias gpg='/cygdrive/c/Program\ Files\ \(x86\)/GNU/GnuPG/gpg2.exe'
alias gpg >> .bash_profile

Optional: You might find it easier to set your cygwin home directory to you Windows home directory with this command:

mkpasswd -l -p "$(cygpath -H)" > /etc/passwd

Read this page for more information about that command.


To install pass in cygwin, download the zip and extract it.  In the cygwin shell, cd to the directory where you’ve extracted it, and run

make install

This will install pass to /usr/bin/pass within the cygwin environment.  You can now follow the regular instructions for setting up your password store. If you are using git you may need to set the PASSWORD_STORE_DIR environment variable:

echo "export PASSWORD_STORE_DIR=/cygdrive/c/Users/username/.password-store" >> ~/.bash_profile
. .bash_profile

Firefox extension

The firefox extension isn’t available for Windows on (as it is for Linux), but you can download it directly from the Github page.

Once you’ve added it to Firefox, click the P icon on your toolbar and select Preferences.  Set the following values (note the double slashes!):

  • User Home: C:\\Users\\yourusername
  • Pass command: C:\\cygwin64\\bin\\bash.exe
  • Pass command line arguements: –login /usr/bin/pass

Thanks to this discussion for that information.

And that’s it!

Migrating Lastpass to pass password store

I’ve been a Lastpass customer for several years, and it’s been pretty much the only service I’ve used which stores my data on someone else’s servers (albeit encrypted).  I’ve never been particualrly happy with this, but haven’t found a solution that allows me to access to my passwords easily from multiple devices across multiple platforms, so have stuck with it until now.

My Lastpass subscription is due for renewal this month, and this week Lastpass suffered a security breach.  This coincides with my discovery of pass, a unix password manager that stores your passwords locally in plain text files encrypted with GPG.  It also integrates with git to allow your password store to be easily shared between devices, and has clients for Android (which I need for my phone) and Windows (which I need for work).  I decided to have a go at migrating to see how I got on.


Setting up on Linux was straightforward.  I’m running Ubuntu 14.04, so installed with apt-get install pass  I generated a key with gpg --gen-key and ran pass init to create a password store using the key.  I then ran pass git init to initialise the git repository.  Next, I exported my passwords from LastPass using their CSV export feature, and ran the file through this script to import then into pass.  Similar scripts are available for migration from other password stores.

I installed the Firefox extension, and it works like a charm, matching the current site and filling in login forms for me.

Before I could install a client on another device, I needed to push the git password store to a server.  I logged into my server that’s accessible via the Internet, created a folder and ran git init --bare since I don’t need to have the files checked out on the server.  I then ran pass git add remote to add the server, and pass git push to sync the passwords.


For Android, there is a client called Password Store which can be found in F-Droid or the Play Store.  First, you need to install OpenKeychain (available from the same places), and import your GPG key.  I followed this guide to export my key, copied it to my phone and used the “Import from File” option to add it to OpenKeychain.

In Password Store, I set up the Git repository and synced down my passwords.  I then set OpenKeychain the the OpenPGP provider, and I was set.  When unlocking a password, Password Store will automatically copy it to the clipboard for a defined number of seconds, then clear it.  OpenKeychain allows you to cache your key’s password for a defined number of minutes, so you don’t have to enter it repeatedly.  It then forgets it automatically.


Update: I’ve since worked out how to set up pass properly on Windows, including the Firefox extension.  See this post for a full guide.

There are several solutions for Windows, none of them are as complete as the Linux equivalents yet (for example, no Firefox plugin).  However, you can get a similar copy-to-clipboard-then-auto-delete workflow like on Android.

Firstly, you need to install Git and GPG.  I already had msysgit installed which includes gpg, but it’s an older version so I installed GPG4Win as well.  You then need to import your key into gpg.  I found this was easiest using the gpg CLI in git-bash (see the guide linked above again).

The “Windows Client” listed on the pass website is Pass4Win, but I found this to be buggy.  Instead, I went for the “Cross-platform GUI” listed in the site, QtPass.  This gives you the option to use native pass, or to use GPG and Git directly.  I went for the latter option (be sure to select the gpg2.exe executable installed by GPG4Win, not the older one provided by msysgit).

Running QtPass prompted me to create a password store – I selected the key I’d already added to GPG and it created the empty store.  To configure the git repository, I found it easiest to use the command line (it didn’t prompt me for git details in QtPass. I went to the password store directory that had just been created, then ran git init git remote add added the remote details to .git/config and ran git pull  Closing an re-opening QtPass found the git repository and I was good to go.


Lastpass has invested a lot in the usablitity of its soltution.  The browser plugins and Android apps take care of identifying websites and filling in the password for you.  pass is part way there, but still has a long way to go.  I’m willing to comprimise on the usability for the peace of mind of holding all my own data.  However, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who primarily uses Windows, and I wouldn’t want anyone who’s not familiar with what GPG is to try and set it up for themselves.  Once set up with the browser extension, it’s certainly a decent alternative to Lastpass on Linux, and a pretty good one on Android.

Diversity at OggCamp

Important note: This is a personal blog post on my personal blog. While I was largely responsible for the organisation of this year’s OggCamp, there is no formal organisation called “OggCamp”, and this post is intended to communicate my personal thoughts on these issues, not those of anyone else involved in past, present or future OggCamp events. At this point there are no plans regarding an OggCamp in 2015, as to where it will be, who will organise it, when or even whether it will happen.

OggCamp 14 took place this weekend in Oxford.  Shortly before the event, Twitter user @zenaynay mentioned that she would be keeping a tally of how many non-male and non-white attendees were at the event.  I was interested to see what she found, and today looked over her timeline from the weekend to find the comments posted below (with her permission), which I felt warranted a considered response.

Before I continue, I feel I should point out that I’m a middle-class white male living in the UK and working in the IT industry, which means I have no first-hand experience of what it’s like to be part of an under-represented minority in my everyday life. This means that when talking about these issues I fear that I may come across as patronising, insensitive, or otherwise offensive. However, to avoid discussing these issues on that basis would be to say that improving diversity is the sole responsibility of the under-represented, which won’t get us anywhere.

To summarise @zenaynay’s observations, she found that while there were a lot of white women (WW) at the event, there were almost no people of colour (POC) in general or women of colour (WOC) in particular, other then herself. In addition, the vast majority of the speakers at the event were men. As a result, she felt out of place, and as though she wasn’t part of the culture of the event.

This is a problem for me, as I want OggCamp to be an inclusive place for everyone. We have done a better job than other tech and open source-related conferences I’ve been to at attracting women and children, although we have made no specific effort to ensure this. To realise that we’re still excluding a group of potential attendees is disappointing, but I choose to take the criticism as an opportunity to make future events even better rather than a reason that this event was unsuccessful.

Personally, I’m more concerned with the content of the talks being diverse and interesting than the people that give them, but I also understand that members of a diverse audience may feel out of place watching a homogenous group of speakers to which they feel they dont belong, and may therefore be put off attending the event in the first place.  This isn’t a situation I’m happy with.

One point of @zenaynay’s observations that I don’t agree with is the assertion that the organisers use the unconference model of the event to get us off the hook regarding speaker diversity. This isn’t the case. From my point of view, one reason why we use the unconference model is that it gives OggCamp the energy and dynamic atmosphere that makes the event unique. The second (and probably main) reason why is that arranging a 3-track 2-day conference schedule is serious amount of work, and we simply don’t have the resources to do it.

We do have a small number of scheduled speakers each year, which is usually made up of people who I can think to ask. This is, of course, limited by the people that I know about, and then further by those who respond to me.  I dont think this has ever resulted in us having an all white-male schedule, but they have certainly been in the majority. If we had the capacity to manage the process, an open call for papers may be a useful device for getting a more diverse line-up of speakers.

As for diversity among unconference speakers, I’d like to hear from existing non-white-male attendees as to why they don’t tend to offer talks. It’s not necessary to indicate your gender, race, or age when submitting a talk to be voted on, so I can’t imagine that attendees use those metrics to decide which talks to watch.  However, there’s clearly something we’re missing here that’s putting people off.

Finally, we come to what I see as the most important issue, which underpins all of this: the diversity of attendees. More diverse attendees means a more diverse pool of speakers to draw on for the unconference, and a more diverse and inclusive culture to bring future attendees into, hopefully allowing them to feel more comfortable.
I don’t know for sure how people hear about and decide to come to OggCamp, but I suspect that it was initially members of the LugRadio community, plus listeners to the UUPC and Linux Outlaws podcasts, and then word of mouth spread from there. For whatever reason, this word of mouth didn’t spread to many people of colour.

Perhaps, therefore, what we need for OggCamp is more widespread marketing. The easiest way to market the event (and therefore the one I focused on this year) is to speak to previous attendees on social media, which is obviously never going to increase diversity. Knowing where and how to promote the event to make it visible to attendees who don’t necessarily fit the existing “mould” which we’ve apparently developed could be a big step in the right direction.

Another step in the right direction may be to adopt a formal code of conduct (CoC).  It’s not something we’ve ever felt the need to introduce before, but I was made aware this year of someone who was put off attending by the lack of a CoC.  Codifying and honouring our intention to make the event safe and welcoming for everyone may help encourage those who worry that they might not be welcome, to attend.

I’ve mentioned to several people this year that I’d like to increase the involvement of the community in the organisation of OggCamp by creating a permanent online discussion forum (web forum, mailing list or whatever). If we go ahead with this and you’re interested in helping OggCamp become more diverse, I’d encourage you to get involved in the discussion. Follow @OggCamp on Twitter and we’ll keep you posted as plans are developed.

My Steam Box – PVR power management

I mentioned before that I’m using tvheadend and XBMC as a PVR on my Steam box/HTPC. This allows me to schedule recordings and do things like series link recordings to ensure I dont miss an episode. However, it does have the slight disadvantage that I need to leave a full-power PC on all the time, otherwise it can’t record. I needed a smarter solution for the sake of my electricity bill, so I devised a way to have the PC turn on when a recording is scheduled, do the recording, then power off again when its done.

Power on to record

My first discovery when hunting for a solution was the ACPI wake alarm feature. This allows you to set an alarm on your hardware clock at which point the computer will turn itself on, even if it’s completely powered off, just as though you’d pressed the power button.

There’s a couple of steps I needed to enable this feature, found thanks to the MythTV wiki. Firstly, it needed to be enabled in the BIOS/UEFI. The setting for my motherboard was called something like “Hardware Clock Wake Up”. Secondly, Ubuntu’s shutdown scripts overwrite the hardware clock with the current time, erasing any alarm set, so a small modification to /etc/init/hwclock-save.conf was required. This ensures that the alarm is written back to the hardware clock.

With the feature enabled, I then needed a command to set the alarm. XBMC’s TV settings have a “Power Saving” section, with a “Set wakeup command” option. This lets you give a command which will be called with the unix timestamp of the next recording as an argument. I set this to sudo /home/xbmc/ I used sudo since I needed permission to write to the wakealarm device, and added a sudoers rule to let XBMC run the command without a password:
xbmc ALL=NOPASSWD: /home/xbmc/

Finally, the script itself:

The business is all on lines 4 and 5. 4 clears any previous alarms, and 5 sets a new one using the passed timestamp. XBMC has a “Wakeup before recording” option which lets you adjust the timestamp arugment to be a few minutes ahead of the actual record time. This script is triggered whenever XBMC is shut down.

Power off after recording

Powering off was a bit of a trickier business. Tvheadend has a “Post-processor command” setting which executes after a recording completes, which is simple enough. However, just putting shutdown -h now in there isn’t enough, since it wont cause XBMC to call its wakeup script, meaning the next recording could be missed. XBMC’s shutdown or exit command has to be called explicitly for this to happen. Furthermore, I didn’t always want the system to turn off – what if I was watching something, or playing a game at the time?

After some poking around, I found that using the shutdown button in XBMC’s web interface was sufficient to trigger the wakeup script. Furthermore, this was using XBMC’s JSONRPC interface, which could be fed commands by sending raw JSON strings over telnet. This gave me a way of triggering the shutdown and wakeup from a script, with the added bonus of giving me a way to find out if XBMC was currently playing something. This led to the creating of this ruby script and a bash script to call it:

The bash script is the command actually called by tvheadend as the environment the command executes in triggered a bug in Ruby 1.9 from the Ubuntu respitory. The script just uses RVM to set up an environemnt with a newer version of Ruby which doesn’t have the bug. The Ruby script checks that no other users are logged in, no video is playing in XBMC, then calls XBMC’s shut down routine, which in turn sets the alarm for the next recording. Job done!

My Steam Box – Amazon Instant Video on Ubuntu

While my Steam Box is running XBMC for media playback, there’s one service I use which XBMC can’t provide: Amazon Instant Video (formerly Lovefilm Instant).

AIV can be streamed through various apps or through Silverlight in a web browser. However, none of these options are supported on desktop Linux.  Of course, with the Ubuntu ecosystem being what it is, “not supported” is far from “impossible”.

The solution to the problem comes in the form of Pipelight – a browser plugin for Firefox which runs Silverlight and other Windows-only browser plugins in a special version of Wine.  This clever little hack (installed from a PPA through apt-get) allows you to watch Silverlight content within Firefox for Linux! It’s worth noting that I use the pipelight-multi package which allows you to set up Pipelight and Pipelight’s WINE installation for specific users, rather than for every user on the system.

With this problem solved, I wanted to make the user experience of accessing AIV a bit smoother.  To acheive this, I created a small autorun script which runs when the lovefilm user logs in to openbox.  The script contains the following commands:

switch-to-xbmc &
pkill -u lovefilm

This means that firefox launches on login. Firefox is configured to open AIV when it starts, and to run in fullscreen mode, has all but a few toolbar buttons removed and consolidated into a single toolbar. When we’re done watching, we close firefox, which lets switch-to-xbmc execute to return us to the XBMC menu, then pkill kills any other processes belonging to the lovefilm user, logging it out.

The final issue with using AIV on a TV is that the web page is noisy and not designed to be used on a big screen on the other side of the room. To fix this I’ve written a GreaseMonkey userscript (very much a work-in-progress) to remove a lot of the Amazon bumf and reformat the page to make it work better on a large screen.

My next and final post in this series will look at how I’ve got Steam and some associated utilities set up.

My Steam Box – Media Playback

For media playback on my Steam Box/HTPC I’m (mostly) using XBMC.  This lets me play videos from my server and watch DVDs from my DVD drive.  On top of this basic functionality I’ve installed the BBC iPlayer and YouTube plugins to allow me to stream content from the web.


I mentioned in my hardware post that I’d purchased a DVB-T2 USB dongle to allow me to watch HD TV.  For the past several years, the standard solution for TV/PVR functionality on Linux has been MythTV.  However, these days XBMC also has a good deal of this functionality in its PVR plugins, as long as you can get a backend service installed to operate the tuner.

One of these options is, of course, MythTV Backend. However, after struggling through the “Setup Wizard” being asked every question under the sun and still not getting it working, I gave up and found TVHeadEnd.  This gives you a simple web interface which detects your hardware and scans for channels with ease.  Adding the TVHeadEnd PVR plugin to XBMC gave me live TV and PVR functionality with minimum fuss.


XBMC gives you several remote control options, including a web interface and a service for other remote control apps to connect to.  I have a remote control widget on my android phone which works well enough, but I’ve found it easiest just to use the regular keys on my Rii Touch keyboard.


I’m not a particular fan of XBMC’s default Confluence theme, in particular it’s menu which only shows the selected option.  After looking around and finding this guide on Lifehacker, I switched to the Transparency theme which has a much better menu, and could be customised to have just the bits I need.

Switching Users

I mentioned in my last post that I’d written scripts using dm-tool to switch between users.  To run these from XBMC I installed the Advanced Launcher addon. This addon lets you create launchers for any executable within XBMC, and add them to the main menu in themes that support it.  Using this method I created launchers for the switch-to-steam and switch-to-lovefilm scripts on the main menu.

My Steam Box – OS and Software

In my last post I went over the hardware I used for my new Steam Box/HTPC all-in-one living room PC.  In this post I’m going to go over how I’ve got the OS set up and touch on the software I’m running to provide me with gaming and media playing functions.  I’ll then go over the details of each function in separate posts.

To start with, I did a vanilla Ubuntu 12.04 LTS desktop install.  I’d considered going for SteamOS, but to be honest, Big Picture Mode isn’t quite there yet, and I know where I am when it comes to getting extra packages and cool hacks for Ubuntu.  One part of SteamOS I was really impressed with is how they’ve set up Steam and the desktop session on separate profiles letting you can switch easily between the two functions, so I chose to emulate that on my set up.

The 3 main functions I wanted were media playback, a basic desktop (mainly for administrative tasks) and a desktop session to run Steam.

For administrative functions, I created a user called “mark” during installation (as I usually do).  Mark is a sudoer, with a standard 12.04 Unity desktop.

For media playback, I installed XBMC.  I created an unprivileged user called “xbmc”, set to auto-login to the XBMC standalone session with no password, making XBMC the initial interface on boot.

For gaming, I created a second unprivileged user called “steam”, set to log in to a Unity desktop session with no password.  Steam is set to auto run on log in, and display the Library tab in Grid view (showing the artwork for each game like Big Picture Mode does).

There’s also a third unprivileged user called “lovefilm” which logs in to an openbox session with no password, but I’ll talk about that more in its own post.

To switch to each user, I’ve created a scripts called “switch-to-xbmc” etc. which use the dm-tool utility.  These can be called from the appropriate interface (a menu item in XBMC, a non-Steam application launcher in Steam) to quickly switch to between users.

In the next post I’ll talk about how I’ve set up XBMC for media playback in a bit more detail.