At the E3 video games expo today, Microsoft showed off what Minecraft—the open-world building blocks videogame—will look like when played on its HoloLens augmented-reality headset. It looked a lot like magic.
Wearing a HoloLens, a person can project a Minecraft world onto any wall or flat surface. On a wall, the game looks like the regular computer screen experience, but when the game is tossed onto a tabletop, it looks like a digital version of every child’s wildest Lego fantasy. Much like the Nintendo Wii before it, the HoloLens frees gamers from consoles and controls, and could change how regular people—not hardcore gamers—play games in the future.
While much of Microsoft’s announcement at E3 centered around placating hardcore Xbox gamers—from a new controller, to a new Halo game, and backwards compatibility of Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One—it used Minecraft to show what HoloLens could do. While wearing a HoloLens, a gamer onstage was able to interact with a Minecraft world by speaking commands and tapping the air. In person at the conference, this might have looked a little weird, as there was just a man on stage in a headset pointing at an empty table, but on screens and online, you could see what he was seeing, and it looked like a lot of fun.
Microsoft previewed some of the things it envisions us doing with HoloLens when it announced the device in January—designing things in 3D, getting virtual plumbing help, and even playing Minecraft—and now it seems the company is delivering on the gaming aspect of its platform. Minecraft is a popular brand, with more than 100 million registered users, and more than 10 million copies of the game sold on Xbox.
It isn’t clear if the brand is popular enough to make those millions of people buy a HoloLens, but it’s an anchor brand at the very least. The Ninetendo Wii had Mario to sell kids on trying out a new way of gaming, and then the Wii Sports game bundled in with the console got the parents to try it out, too.
In any case, it will be be an uphill battle to get regular people to strap computers to their faces to play a casual game (that’s industry-speak for a game that’s relatively simple and not overly time-consuming). But then, playing with the Wii—arms flailing wildly, holding a white stick, trying to control a digital bowling ball—took some time to seem normal. The Wii sold over 100 million consoles, and the second-best-selling game for the console (not including the one that was bundled in to many sales) was another casual game. Even Pong, the first videogame (sort of) was a virtual representation of a parlor game. Playing ping pong in the living room without the fear of breaking anything would be a pretty great use case.
If Microsoft can combine casual gameplay, whether that’s building things in Minecraft, or bowling with friends, with the ability to interact with games on any surface, the HoloLens could be a hit. Even if we have to look bizarre using it.
Microsoft is already working with developers to bring big name games to HoloLens, but hardcore gamers are going to want high-definition games akin to what they can get on a PC or an Xbox. While HoloLens is still in development, Quartz’s Alice Truong noticed when trying it out that its field of view was severely limiting. “It’s sort of like the AR version of tunnel vision,” she noted. Microsoft is likely going to have to figure this out if it’s going to attract gamers of any sort, but building games that are simply addictive, or social, should be an easier task than placating the hardcore gamers. To an extent, that strategy has worked on mobile.
There’s no release date for the HoloLens yet, but there could be a time soon that we come home from a long day of work, throw the contraption on, and play a few holes of golf or a few rounds of darts with some friends on the other side of the world. As long as it works, and it’s not too expensive.