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Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm – TechCrunch

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When your game tops 100 million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokémon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world-based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, as Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure, but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things — chests, mobs and encounters — are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, as the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but, you get the idea

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press; we got to experience a couple of build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft, verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone.)

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokémon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokémon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing, but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually, but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it shouldn’t be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t, like, take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The HoloLens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

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Continuous scrolling comes to mobile Google Search

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Enlarge / See that spinny thing at the bottom of the page? It’s going to load more search results any second now…

Google

Google is rolling out a big update to mobile search today: continuous scrolling.

Now, instead of making you tap to load the next page after your usual 10 links of search results, Google will just load the next page.

The company hopes that continuous scrolling will get people to look at more search results and that a longer supply of results is better for more open-ended search questions. The blog post notes that “most people who want additional information tend to browse up to four pages of search results.” If you search on your phone, you’ll find that continuous scrolling lasts for exactly four pages before the familiar “show more” link pops up. When Google automatically loads the next page, it also sticks an ad before the next page of search results.

Google said that “this new Search experience is starting to gradually roll out today for most English searches on mobile in the US.” It seems to work on the Google Search app and the website.

Listing image by Sean Gallup | Getty Images

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Fixes for AMD Ryzen performance, other Windows 11 issues rolling out to testers now

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Enlarge / A PC running Windows 11.

Microsoft

Now that Windows 11 is out, the arduous process of fixing the new operating system’s bugs can begin. The OS got its first Patch Tuesday update earlier this week, and now another update is rolling out to Windows Insiders in the Beta and Release Preview channels. It fixes a long list of early problems with Windows 11.

The headliner here is a fix for a problem affecting L3 cache latency on AMD Ryzen processors. According to AMD, the bug can reduce performance by 3–5 percent. The Windows 11 update released earlier this week may have actually made the problem worse, but at least a fix is imminent.

The L3 latency bug is one of a pair of problems that AMD identified with Windows 11 earlier this month. The other Windows 11 problem AMD identified, which can prevent high-core-count, high-wattage Ryzen chips from correctly assigning work to the processor’s fastest individual cores, will be fixed via an AMD driver update.

The Release Preview Insider channel is usually a Windows update’s last stop before public distribution. A post shared on Reddit suggests that the Windows update is being targeted for release on Tuesday, October 19th, while the AMD driver update for the other problem should be released two days later, on the 21st.

Other bugs addressed in the Windows 11 update include one that prevented some upgraders from seeing the new Taskbar or using the Start menu, a PowerShell bug that can fill up a storage volume with “an infinite number of child directories” when you try to move a directory into its own child directory, and a number of problems that could cause freezes, crashes, and slowdowns.

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MacBook Pros, an “M1X” chip, and other stuff to expect at Apple’s October event

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Enlarge / Apple could be getting ready to show us the next stage of the MacBook Pro’s development.

Another month, another Apple event. Fresh off a September event that delivered new updates for the entire iPhone lineup, some new iPads, and a gently tweaked Apple Watch, Apple is preparing for another event on Monday, October 18. And this time, we’re expecting the company to focus on the Mac, which is still in the middle of a transition from Intel chips to the Apple Silicon chips that are making new Macs feel exciting and important in a way they haven’t in years.

We’ll be following along live starting at 10 am Pacific on Monday, but in the meantime, we’ve gathered all the current rumors and put together a list of things we’re most likely to see (as well as one or two things that aren’t as likely). The short version is that Apple should finally be gearing up to show us high-performance Apple Silicon chips.

The “M1X” chip, or whatever it’s called

Just as the MacBook Air, the newest 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Mac mini, and the 24-inch iMac all use the same M1 chip, we expect the next round of Macs to share the same silicon as well. Commonly referred to as the “M1X,” the chip’s exact specifications are a bit of a mystery, since Apple’s chip designs are among its best-kept secrets. But it’s not hard to guess the general gist of what we’ll be getting—new chips that improve upon the performance of the Intel processors they’re replacing while also enabling a dramatic increase in battery life. Recent Intel MacBook refreshes have struggled to provide one or the other of these things, but the M1 Macs managed to do both.

To replace the higher-end Intel Macs, the M1X will need to have just a bit more of everything compared to the M1: more processor cores, more GPU cores, and support for more monitors and Thunderbolt and USB ports. Without adapters or docks, the M1 can drive only two screens at once, including the computer’s internal display. We’d also expect configurations with more than 16 GB of RAM, the current maximum for M1 Macs.

A report from late last year suggested that a higher-performance chip destined for the MacBook Pros could include as many as 16 of Apple’s performance cores, though more recent reporting suggests we could be looking at a chip with eight performance cores and two low-power efficiency cores. Even eight performance cores should be able to outpace the 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-core processors in today’s Intel Macs. The M1X will also reportedly be available with either 16 or 32 GPU cores, compared to the seven or eight GPU cores included in the standard M1 (Apple could also improve graphics performance by increasing memory bandwidth, as it has done in some older iPad processors, but we haven’t heard anything specific about that).

New MacBook Pros

New MacBook Pros that replace the four-port 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro are the thing we’re most likely to get out of Monday’s event.

Apple’s first few Apple Silicon Macs were very conservative from a design standpoint—the MacBook Air, two-port MacBook Pro, and Mac mini all put new guts into computers that looked identical to the ones they were replacing. But the new MacBook Pros could be a bit more adventurous, in the vein of the 24-inch iMac.

For example, persistent rumors claim that the 13-inch MacBook Pro could become a 14-inch MacBook Pro. And breadcrumbs left in some macOS betas suggest that Apple is working on laptops with higher-resolution screens that could obviate the need for the scaled, non-native resolution that all current MacBooks use out of the box. With a more efficient chip, Apple could also take the opportunity to shrink the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s huge 100 WHr battery, reducing the 4.3-pound laptop’s size and weight. Other improvements could include more energy-efficient mini LED backlighting for the displays and possibly even a 120 Hz refresh rate (the reporting for the 120 Hz refresh rate is thin, but it would dovetail nicely with macOS Monterey’s support for external monitors with variable refresh rates).

Other rumors suggest that Apple will walk back some of the more controversial changes made to the MacBook Pro back in 2016, the last time the laptops got a comprehensive overhaul. Alleged schematics from earlier this year suggest that the MagSafe power connector could make a return, along with a full-size HDMI port and an SD card slot. These changes would reduce the number of Thunderbolt ports to three, but having a few kinds of ports would still make the laptops more convenient to use, on balance, for people who frequently use external displays or SD cards. The Touch Bar may also be removed in favor of a physical row of function keys.

A faster Mac mini

The 2020, M1-equipped Apple Mac mini.

The 2020, M1-equipped Apple Mac mini.

Samuel Axon

We’d say the new MacBook Pros are pretty much a sure thing, but there are a couple of less-likely-but-still-possible Mac refreshes Apple could introduce.

Apple already has an Apple Silicon Mac mini, but you may have noticed that the company continues to sell a version of the 2018 Intel Mac mini with more ports and up to 64GB of RAM. Recent rumors suggest that Apple could replace this machine with a sort of “Mac mini Pro,” which would leverage the M1X’s improved performance and expanded connectivity. The current Apple Silicon Mac mini is great for basic use or even light photo and video editing, but an M1X Mac mini would be a better workstation for code compilation or professional video editing, tasks that generally take advantage of all of the processing performance they can get.

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