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Minecraft Earth goes a step beyond Pokémon Go to cover the world in blocks

Microsoft’s ambitious goal: holograms that persist everywhere

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Alex Kipman, Microsoft’s HoloLens and Kinect creator, is always enthusiastic about the future of computing. As he stands in front of me inside a Minecraft-themed conference room on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, I’m immediately drawn to the stacks of Lego blocks on the table beside him. Lego is the perfect analogy for Minecraft. For a decade, it’s been a game that millions use to build their own creations out of virtual blocks of materials. Minecraft employees use Lego blocks to build miniature buildings during meetings, but over the past 12 months, they’ve been adventuring outside to secretly test a new way to play Minecraft.

In the same building where Microsoft is creating the next Halo game, a team of engineers and game designers have been dreaming up the future of Minecraft on mobile phones with the help of the HoloLens team. Minecraft Earth is a new free-to-play game for iOS and Android that’s surprisingly ambitious for Microsoft. We’ve already seen holograms through Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, but the company now wants to bring this technology to a much broader scale with the help of Minecraft Earth.

Pokémon Go saw 20 million people searching for pokémon in streets worldwide back in 2016, thanks to augmented reality. Minecraft has 91 million active players, and now Microsoft wants to take the Pokémon Go concept a big step further by letting Minecraft players create and share whatever they’ve made in the game with friends in the real world, away from TV screens and monitors.

Minecraft Earth proposes to completely break the dogma that has lived with us in computing since the beginning: this idea of a single person that holds a single device to create a single experience,” says Kipman. “With Minecraft Earth, that’s no longer the case. The content is in the real world.”

Imagine sitting at home and building something in Minecraft on your phone and then dropping it into your local park for all of your friends to see it together at the same exact location. Minecraft Earth aims to transform AR gaming from single-person experiences into a living, breathing virtual world that’s shared by everyone. If Microsoft succeeds, you’ll be able to walk into a mall and point your phone’s camera at a McDonald’s Minecraft adventure while you’re eating a Big Mac or see your own giant structures next to actual buildings.

Microsoft is being hugely ambitious with ‘Minecraft Earth’

This hugely ambitious project starts with some basics in the form of Minecraft Earth. The game will be available in beta on iOS and Android this summer, and I got to try various forms of it at Microsoft’s campus a couple of weeks ago. It’s fair to say the game I played was basic, occasionally buggy, but very impressive. While the regular version of Minecraft lets players play in modes like creative (with unlimited blocks and items) or survival (if you die you lose your items), Microsoft is blending these traditional modes into a new way to play Minecraft.

“This is an adaptation, this is not a direct translation of Minecraft,” explains Torfi Olafsson, game director of Minecraft Earth. While it’s an adaptation, it’s built on the existing Bedrock engine so it will be very familiar to existing Minecraft players. “If you like building Redstone machines, or you’re used to how the water flows, or how sand falls down, it all works,” says Olafsson. All of the mobs of animals and creatures in Minecraft are available, too, including a new pig that really loves mud. “We have tried to stay very true to the kind of core design pillars of Minecraft, and we’ve worked with the design team in Stockholm to make sure that the spirit of the game is carried through,” says Olafsson.

Just like Pokémon Go, you’ll need to venture out into the real world to collect things. Instead of pokéstops, Minecraft Earth has “tapables” that are randomly placed in the world around you. There are always two nearby, and you can walk to get more. These are designed to give you small rewards that allow you to build things, and you’ll want to collect as many of these as possible to get resources and items to build vast structures in the building mode.

“We have covered the entire planet in Minecraft,” explains Olafsson. “Every lake is a place you can fish, every park is a place you can chop down trees. We’ve actually taken maps of the entire world and converted them to Minecraft.”

These maps, based on OpenStreetMap, have allowed Microsoft to start working out where to place Minecraft adventures into the world. These adventures spawn dynamically on the Minecraft Earth map and are designed for multiple people to get involved in. This is really where Minecraft Earth starts to get interesting and beyond anything I’ve played in other AR games like Pokémon Go. I tried a variety of adventures during my brief Minecraft Earth gameplay demo, and they range from peaceful and friendly to a little more risky, knowing you enter them and might lose all your treasure if you die to a monster.

The fascinating part of adventures is that you can be side-by-side with friends, all experiencing the same game on the exact same spot of a sidewalk or in a park at the same time. Microsoft is doing some impressive behind-the-scenes computational magic (more on that later) so that when you play an adventure, it’s in a precise location, beyond regular GPS coordinates, so that everyone is experiencing the same thing. You can fight monsters, break down structures for resources together, and even stand in front of a friend to block them from physically killing a virtual sheep.

All of the blocks that are collected during an adventure are shared with fellow players, so there are no player-versus-player battles here to kill each other and steal materials. You’ll even see the tools that fellow players have in their hands on your phone’s screen, alongside their username. The idea is that you essentially become your phone in Minecraft Earth, and your camera is a lens into this virtual world.

‘Minecraft Earth’ lets you play with friends at the same spot at the same time

Once you’ve gathered lots of resources, you can then start building. Every player will have a library of build plates, with some that are as big as 200 x 200 feet. You can use build plates to sit a Minecraft build down on a table and build something with friends. Every piece of material that a friend uses on your own plate will then be part of your build, so it’s a collaborative effort to create giant structures; playing solo will mean a lot of searching around for materials.

I sat for around 10 minutes creating a Minecraft build where I could see blocks flying onto the stcture from someone next to me. They could also see everything I was doing in real time, and we could build together block by block. I could, if I wanted to, also steal my friend’s blocks here to create my own mega building. That introduces an interesting social dynamic because, unlike most games, you’ll be physically next to the person you’re stealing from in the virtual world. “In order to steal, you would have to look up and go, ‘Hmm, I’m going to take your blocks,’” says Saxs Persson, creative director of Minecraft. “Shenanigans will come from when people have different opinions about what needs to happen, or they band together and do something meaningful.”

Once you’ve completed a build, you can then share a link to it for friends or followers to then play with your creation on a table or in giant scale in an open space. You’ll only be able to share a temporary copy of your build to friends, though. They can burn it down and massacre your animals, but it won’t get saved. Because every block, every animal, and every item came from somewhere, it’s a chance for Minecraft Earth players to show off how many hours they’ve put into the game. “This allows people to build something pretty and share it with their friends,” explains Olafsson. “It allows you to be inspired by other people’s craftsmanship.”

There’s also progression in Minecraft Earth with levels and experience points that are similar to a traditional role-playing game, rather than the classic Minecraft experience. Your character never gets reset, and you always have your same materials in a world that everyone participates in. “We think it’s important to kind of reward and recognize your progression,” says Olafsson. “We have levels that unlock content, and as you go up in levels, you’ll get access to more and more content and more build plates.” You’ll also start to earn Rubies, the in-game currency for Minecraft Earth that will let you buy things like build plates, potions, and more content.

One of the key parts of Minecraft Earth is having multiple people interact with adventures in a specific location in real time. This is actually a very difficult problem to solve with augmented reality, and it’s thanks to recent progressions in mobile technology that have allowed Microsoft to even try to tackle this. Eventually, Microsoft wants these to persist as “holograms” in the environment around us with exact precision. The problem is our phone cameras aren’t very intelligent. You can use GPS, Wi-Fi fingerprinting, and AR to determine a location, but you need computer vision algorithms to really work out where to place a virtual object that everyone is going to interact with.

Microsoft is using its new Azure Spatial Anchors technology in Minecraft Earth. It uses machine vision algorithms so that real-world objects can be used as anchors for digital content. These holograms, as Microsoft calls them, always stay in the same spot. Apple and Google are also working on ways to let multiple devices see and interact with the same virtual object in AR, but Microsoft is trying to create the infrastcture and tools to let developers use this across iOS and Android. This is the secret sauce of Minecraft Earth, if you will.

“We rely on people going out and, essentially, not scanning the world, but seeing the world for us and then making that common play space,” explains Persson. This means that Minecraft Earth players are going to help inform where adventures should be placed. They’ll also contribute to making Microsoft’s Azure Spatial Anchors technology more powerful, simply by pointing their cameras at the environment around them. There are obviously privacy implications here, and Microsoft says all data and images will be anonymized so that the algorithms are only detecting feature points around you. Without this machine vision, Microsoft wouldn’t be able to be so ambitious with Minecraft Earth.

Microsoft used its HoloLens tech to bring ‘Minecraft Earth’ to life

“To do this, we had to take some of the HoloLens algorithms for capturing images on device and turn them into a point cloud that we can share,” says Jason Cahill, an engineering architect for Minecraft. This allows Microsoft to locate every player in the game and precisely know where they are standing and where to place an adventure for everyone to interact with. Adventures will start off conservatively, and players will walk up to the rough area that Microsoft has designated a place to play. These will mainly be placed nearby where people are often collecting the tapables, and it will be up to the first few players in that area to decide exactly where an adventure gets placed. Once it’s been placed enough times in a safe area, it will persist for new players to simply walk up and start interacting with the adventure.

Microsoft is also being very careful about where these adventures are placed. Pokémon Go developer Niantic had to settle a lawsuit recently with angry homeowners who had pokéstops placed near their houses, and there are many challenges regarding blending augmented reality with private spaces. “This being Microsoft, we have an army of people that figure these things out for what’s a good place to play,” explains Persson. “And how do we help people that say, ‘No, that’s not for me. I don’t want it at my house or by my shop.’”

Persistent holograms are obviously the end goal for Minecraft Earth, and it’s easy to imagine a future where players can drop these wherever they want once they’ve been approved. This user-generated content always comes with a mountain of risks, though. Whether that’s people building virtual penises or houses with swastikas, there’s always going to be people who would love to in the fun.

“There are lots of very real challenges around user-generated content,” says Persson. “It’s a complicated problem at the scale we’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle it.” Microsoft is starting carefully at first without user-generated content being freely placed into the world, and then it plans to figure out how to get this content into Minecraft Earth in the future. “Our vision is that, over time, the collection, the building, the playing, the adventuring will lead to things that people demand they have a place to display,” says Persson. “I think we’ve definitely taken the right steps to get started on that journey. And then we’ll see how quickly we can find the right way for more people to see what you’re doing.”

There are clearly a lot of challenges to overcome for Minecraft Earth to work flawlessly, and Microsoft is certainly being ambitious here. From the demos I played, there’s a lot of potential for this to be a te killer AR app. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in AR before, but at times, the demos did feel a little chaotic with multiple people involved in adventures and building structures. I think the core game loops will work well with a few people side by side, but scaling that to have 20, 50, or even hundreds of people interacting with a holographic Minecraft adventure will be very challenging.

This game could help Azure and HoloLens in the future

That challenge will feed into Microsoft’s broader ambitions with HoloLens and augmented reality, in general. Microsoft sees devices like the HoloLens as the “third wave of computing,” but the company needs the scale of mobile to really understand the world and improve HoloLens and its own cloud offerings. I think Minecraft Earth is fundamental to helping improve Azure Spatial Anchors, HoloLens, and most of Microsoft’s cloud offerings. The learnings from this game could ultimately help improve the services, software, and even hardware that Microsoft offers to commercial customers.

“I think the partnership will improve our overall product,” admits Neena Kamath, product lead for Azure Mixed Reality at Microsoft. “We discover so much… understanding how users interact with their world, and what the design points are. It’s a great partnership.” Microsoft has used the research and technology it built for HoloLens, and it’s now bringing it to iOS and Android devices with the help of ARKit from Apple and ARCore from Google. Now, the real-world data from these devices that everyone has in their pockets will feed back. “It’s a wonderful loop,” as Kamath puts it. Minecraft Earth won’t be launching on HoloLens anytime soon, though, despite Microsoft teasing it at E3 a few years ago.

Microsoft now plans to let Minecraft players access Minecraft Earth for a closed beta this summer. It’s not clear how many will be able to access the beta, or whether it will be restricted to the US initially. It’s early days for Minecraft Earth, and Microsoft doesn’t have all of the answers to many questions figured out just yet. Even monetization isn’t finalized. “We have a fortunate position that Minecraft in and of itself is doing fine from a financial point of view, which allows us to not have to focus too much on what happens with Minecraft Earth,” says Matt Booty, Xbox Game Studios head. “I have total confidence that the team will figure out what the right monetization is for the game.”

I did spot a marketplace section in Minecraft Earth, but it wasn’t ready or populated, so monetization is very much a work in progress. Microsoft did hint that build plates could be sold, though, and it’s easy to imagine that you’ll be able to buy a bunch of Rubies to get more gear. Microsoft says it, understandably, won’t be using loot boxes, though.

No loot boxes for ‘Minecraft Earth’

It’s also reasonable to assume that we might even see Microsoft appear onstage at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) next month. While Microsoft is promising Android and iOS support, I only got to experience the game on Apple’s latest iPhone XS handsets during my brief hands-on time. Minecraft Earth is the best demonstration of augmented reality on an iPhone that I’ve ever seen, and Apple showcased Lego structures during last year’s demonstration of multiplayer mode for AR games.

For now, though, all we have is demos, and Microsoft wouldn’t let me take photos or video or any of the gameplay. The company is being unusually hesitant, most likely because early versions of the game are a little buggy. Aside from the summer beta, the company isn’t committing to a full launch date or plan for Minecraft Earth. I think that’s largely because the Minecraft team is still figuring out a lot of the tech and design decisions.

Microsoft’s gaming chief Phil Spencer was the first person to experience the initial prototype last April, and Persson revealed the pair were thrilled to be firing off fireworks in Minecraft Earth during a lunch hour outside in the rain while colleagues walked by oblivious to the future that Microsoft is building. Microsoft now has months of work ahead to get Minecraft Earth ready. Like the millions of people playing Minecraft right now, Microsoft still has a lot of crafting to do to bring holograms into the real world.