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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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Amazon’s Echo Show 15 smart display becomes a portable Fire TV

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Enlarge / Fire TV on the Amazon Echo Show 15.

Amazon

Amazon’s Echo Show 15 versatile smart display now has a more mainstream purpose: streaming TV and movies. Amazon pushed a free software update today that grants the Echo Show 15 with Fire TV capabilities, and newly purchased devices will be able to stream content from the likes of Disney+, Peacock, and other Fire TV apps.

Amazon initially announced plans to Fire TV-ify the Echo Show 15 in September. At the time, it said 70 percent of people who used the 15.6-inch smart display in the prior month did so to watch videos.

Upon release, the Echo Show 15 supported Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Hulu; (though you could only summon them by asking Alexa). But today’s news puts those apps under one umbrella while adding additional streaming services, including HBO Max and Discovery+ (soon to merge into Max?) and Paramount+.

The update also lets you use Alexa to play content across streaming services by voice, and Amazon is even pushing a bundle of the Echo Show 15 and its Alexa Voice Remote (3rd Gen) to coincide with the new feature.

Amazon hasn't said whether or not it will bring Fire TV to its other, smaller Echo Show devices.
Enlarge / Amazon hasn’t said whether or not it will bring Fire TV to its other, smaller Echo Show devices.

Scharon Harding

The introduction of Fire TV brings a newfound purpose to the Echo Show 15. The device could already do more than any of Amazon’s other Echo products, yet, as a smart display, it’s faced obstacles as an emerging technology since many people struggle to find a purpose for it.

As we said in our Echo Show 15 review, one of the displays’ best features is that its large size beats its competition and boosts experiences like photo viewing. Naturally, watching TV and movies is another place where having those extra inches could help.

While I struggled to navigate the Echo Show 15’s interface to understand all the things I could do with it—despite the product constantly suggesting new features to try—the value of watching TV no needs no explanation here. The Echo Show 15 Fire TV isn’t going to replace the big-screen TV in the living room, but it can now serve as a portable smart TV that you can place or mount in any room much more easily.

The Echo Show 15’s new feature comes as Amazon’s Alexa struggles to find financial success and is reportedly said to lose $10 billion this year. On the other hand, Amazon reportedly sold more than 150 million Fire TV devices as of January and can use the service to make money in good old-fashioned ways, like through ads and pushing other subscription services.

The Echo Show 15 doubling as a Fire TV is another example of how companies are still exploring how to sell smart displays to consumers. Earlier this year, Meta gave its connected video conferencing display an additional, more common functionality when it updated the Portal to serve as a wireless monitor.

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Apple adds end-to-end encryption to iCloud device backups and more

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End-to-end encryption is coming to most of iCloud with a new optional feature called Advanced Data Protection, according to Apple’s announcement on Wednesday.

Previously, 14 data categories within iCloud were protected. This new feature brings that count to 23, including photos, notes, voice memos, reminders, Safari bookmarks, and iCloud backups of the contents of your devices. Not everything is encrypted in this way, though. Critically, calendar and mail are untouched here. Apple says they are not covered “because of the need to interoperate with the global email, contacts, and calendar systems.”

US-based participants in the Apple Beta Software Program can start using Advanced Data Protection today, and it will roll out to more Americans by year’s end. If you’re outside the US, you’ll have to wait until sometime in 2023, Apple says.

Advanced Data Protection is the big news for most people, but Apple announced two other features related to privacy and security on iCloud. First, iCloud users may now use hardware security keys like YubiKeys. Both NFC keys and plug-in keys are supported.

Second, there’s iMessage Contact Key Verification, which can alert “users who face extraordinary digital threats,” like journalists, if state-sponsored actors are hijacking or spying on their conversations, in some cases.

In tandem with today’s announcements, Apple confirmed something most of us already figured: It is no longer working on a controversial system that was intended to identify child sexual-abuse material on users’ iPhones—the company changed course after a public privacy and security backlash.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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San Francisco decides killer police robots aren’t such a great idea

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Enlarge / The social media flyer for the “no killer robots” rally.

The robot police dystopia will have to wait. Last week the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to authorize the San Francisco Police Department to add lethal robots to its arsenal. The plan wasn’t yet “robots with guns” (though some police bomb disposal robots fire shotgun shells already, and some are also used by the military as gun platforms) but to arm the bomb disposal robots with bombs, allowing them to drive up to suspects and detonate. Once the public got wind of this, the protests started, and after an 8–3 vote authorizing the robots last week, now the SF Board of Supervisors has unanimously voted to (at least temporarily) ban lethal robots.

Shortly after the initial news broke, a “No Killer Robots” campaign started with the involvement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and other civil rights groups. Forty-four community groups signed a letter in opposition to the policy, saying, “There is no basis to believe that robots toting explosives might be an exception to police overuse of deadly force. Using robots that are designed to disarm bombs to instead deliver them is a perfect example of this pattern of escalation, and of the militarization of the police force that concerns so many across the city.”

On December 5, over 100 protesters showed up to SF City Hall, carrying signs with phrases like, “We’ve all seen that movie… No Killer Robots.”

Among the protesters was Dean Preston, one of the SF supervisors who originally voted against the policy. Preston claims that the SFPD may have violated the law by not publicly publishing the robot policy 30 days before it goes up for a vote. In a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Police Chief William Scott, Preston cites California Gov Code 7071(b), which requires departments seeking approval for military equipment to “make those documents available on the law enforcement agency’s Internet website at least 30 days prior to any public hearing concerning the military equipment at issue.” Preston later adds: “I want to emphasize that this is not just a technicality. A primary purpose of [this law], written by our City Attorney when he was in the Assembly, is to ensure transparency and give the public an opportunity to weigh in on these policies.”

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the use of lethal robots has been banned “for now.” The issue will go back to committee for further discussion, and it could vote on the policy again in the future.

In a press release after the reversal, Preston says: “The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city.”

The statement ends with: “I am calling on my colleagues to take heed of the powerful backlash and make sure this harmful policy is never approved—not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

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