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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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How desperate are you for GPUs, CPUs, consoles? Newegg tests with new lottery

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Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Over the past 12 months, electronics retailers have been under increased fire and scrutiny for mishandling how they sell brand-new consoles and high-end PC components. This week, online retailer Newegg has moved forward with a new, peculiar system for selling high-demand, low-supply electronics: the Newegg Shuffle. (Or, as the site’s metadata calls it, the Newegg Popular Product Lottery Queue.)

If you catch this article early enough on Friday, January 22, consider this a drop-everything suggestion to rush to the site by 5 pm ET and place a product-purchase request. Really: Do that right now if you’re interested in recent AMD CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, or the all-digital PlayStation 5. It’s free to try. We’ll wait.

OK, so, that process might have been a bit confusing. What’s going on with the Newegg Shuffle?

Shuffling into a forced bundle? Not necessarily, but likely

The Newegg Shuffle buzz began earlier this week when savvy shoppers noticed a limited-time lottery event under the same name in messages sent to a limited pool of Newegg customers. It advertised a variety of CPUs and graphics cards, and the lead-in page included a sales pitch: Pick what you want to buy, sign into your established Newegg customer profile, and submit a request. Do this by a certain time, and within a few hours, you’d get notified if your account was selected to purchase any of the products you picked. (Meaning, you could try to sign up for every listing, or just one, without the choices apparently changing your odds of being randomly selected.)

The problems with that early test, however, came in the form of furious customers sharing images of what the shopping interface actually looked like. After clicking a shiny new AMD processor, or an Nvidia RTX 3080 graphics card, you’d be shown the real shopping option: a forced bundle. Every single option appeared to require purchasing a brand new motherboard, even if you didn’t need one. That was particularly egregious in the case of Nvidia’s graphics cards, which are compatible with the common PCI-e 3.0 standard and thus don’t necessitate a new motherboard for interested PC gamers.

When pressed by PC Mag about this anti-consumer, forced-bundle promotion, Newegg clarified that its Shuffle feature was still in “beta.” The promotion would cut down on forced bundles once it rolled out to all customers. Friday’s Newegg Shuffle launch has confirmed this—but a few forced bundles remain.

Both of today’s available AMD CPUs, the Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 7 5800X, can be purchased as standalone options. They’re additionally listed with bundles, however, and that means you essentially have a better shot at purchasing them from Newegg if you’re willing to attach a motherboard purchase to the CPU. The same goes for one of the promotion’s GPUs, an ASUS flavor of the RTX 3070, which can either be purchased a la carte or with a bundled ASUS motherboard.

Three other GPUs appear in the promotion; two of them can only be purchased a la carte, and one, the ASUS RTX 3080, can only be purchased with a bundled ASUS motherboard (for a whopping combined price of $1179.98).

And the all-digital PlayStation 5 on offer can only be purchased as part of a bundle, adding a staggering $160 to its normal $399 price with an extra controller (sure), a 1080p webcam (meh), and a media remote (ugh). Them’s some serious Gamestop vibes, and not in a good way.

Microsoft taking leadership in the space

The worst part about Newegg Shuffle is that it’s arguably the best system currently on the market for interested PC-parts shoppers. Otherwise, your best bet is following in-the-know Twitter accounts and online-shopping guides to learn exactly when high-end computer components and consoles are in stock—since retailers seem completely disinterested in, you know, letting us pre-order these things and enter a purchase queue.

The sole exception in this madness seems to be Xbox Series X/S. Microsoft has developed a somewhat scalper-proof purchasing system in the form of Xbox All Access. Combine a monthly subscription price with a dedicated Xbox account (and associated mailing address), and you can get your hands on a shiny new Xbox. Such systems are a pain for scalpers to transfer account ownership with. (As a bonus, buying a Series X/S this way may save you money compared to buying the hardware and attached subscription rates at retail prices.)

Until we see more retailers embrace customer verification systems, purchase limits, and anti-scalper efforts, we’re likely going to see more funky “lottery” systems like Newegg’s, complete with predatory bundle-enticement offers.

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Report: The MacBook Air is getting a major redesign, too

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There’s been on onslaught of Apple leaks out of business publication Bloomberg over the past week, and the latest goes into a little more detail about an upcoming MacBook Air redesign.

Like the others, the report cites anonymous people familiar with Apple’s plans. It claims a newly redesigned MacBook Air (presumably with either Apple’s M1 chip for Macs or a successor to that chip) will “be released during the second half of this year at the earliest or in 2022.”

But buried in this MacBook Air report is perhaps equally big news for a certain set of Mac users: it claims that Apple plans to reintroduce the SD card slot in new MacBook Pros—a detail that was left out of a story on those computers earlier this week.

The current M1 MacBook Air will remain in the lineup, while this new MacBook Air will be a “higher-end” alternative that will be sold alongside it. Why is it higher-end, you might ask? Well, Bloomberg’s sources claim that it will be even thinner and lighter than the model that’s available now.

Further, the footprint of the laptop will be smaller because the bezels will be reduced, but the screen will still measure 13 inches. This is a different approach than Apple has taken before (and is expected to continue to take) with its MacBook Pro line. In November of 2019, Apple launched a 16-inch MacBook Pro to replace the prior 15-inch model, but the footprint was the same, while the screen occupied much of the space that was previously bezel, bringing the display size up.

The report also says the new MacBook Air will have MagSafe—something that was stated by the same publication a few days ago about upcoming MacBook Pro models. MagSafe was a key feature of Apple laptops of yore, but Apple gradually removed it from the product line over the past few years before reintroducing it in the iPhone 12 in 2020.

In the Mac, MagSafe is a power port and accompanying cord that lightly, magnetically attach. The cord is easy to slot in, but if the cord is pulled on, it will pop out gently rather than tugging the laptop with it. The goal was to prevent situations where an owner of the device might trip on the cord and accidentally yank the laptop off a desk or table, damaging it.

Finally, today’s Bloomberg report says that Apple “considered” making a MacBook Air with a 15-inch screen, but that plan won’t happen this generation after all.

The reports earlier this week claimed that Apple plans to introduce a new iPhone in 2021 with an in-screen fingerprint reader.

They also said we should expect a 14-inch MacBook Pro with a larger, better display to replace the current 13-inch model, as well as faster graphics and CPU performance. Also coming is a successor to the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which would also have a better screen and which would bring Apple’s own silicon to that product.

Finally, the leaks predicted that an iMac redesign is coming, with Apple Silicon and a new design, as well as a cheaper alternative to Apple’s ProDisplay XDR monitor aimed at consumers.

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Loon’s bubble bursts—Alphabet shuts down Internet balloon company

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When Google announced “Project Loon” in 2013, a running joke behind the project was that no one thought a network of flying Internet balloons was a feasible idea. Eight years later, Google has decided that a network of flying Internet balloons is indeed not a feasible idea. Loon announced it is shutting down, citing the lack of a “long-term, sustainable business.”

Loon CEO (Loon was eventually spun out into an Alphabet company) Alastair Westgarth writes:

We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity—the last billion users: The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier. Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down.

Google also cited economic problems when it shut down Titan Aerospace in 2017, a plan to deliver the Internet via drone.

The name “Loon” came partly from the fact that the project uses flying balloons as a kind of ultra-low-orbit satellite, but also from how “loony” the idea sounded to everyone outside the project. Google’s introductory blog post explained the idea of a flying network of Internet balloons and followed up by saying, “The idea may sound a bit crazy—and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon—but there’s solid science behind it.”

The science mostly seemed to work out. Loon’s sales pitch was that about half of the world was not on the Internet. The offline areas are too remote, without enough backhaul to build a traditional Internet infrastructure. So let’s build everything here and fly it over there, and then everyone can use our flying Internet infrastructure in the sky. The Loon balloons were flying cell phone towers—they could deliver an LTE signal down to regular smartphones (the cheapest computers we have) with no special equipment for the end user. There was also a home version of Loon with a cute red balloon antenna. Google wanted to integrate Loon balloons into the traditional cell phone network and had partnerships with AT&T, Telkom Kenya, and Telefonica in Peru.

Each flying tower was a tennis-court-sized polyethylene helium balloon with an altitude control system, solar panels, a satellite uplink for Google’s air traffic control, and all the cell tower bits. The balloons would fly around 20KM above the Earth—far lower than a low-orbit satellite—and form a mesh network between themselves. The mesh network would have to be wide enough to cover the offline area and also wide enough to beam down to the traditional Internet, bringing the whole network online. Loon didn’t have any directional control, relying instead on differing wind directions at various altitudes. At the height of the project, Google was launching 250 balloons a year, and they could stay floating for 300 days before they needed to be recovered. I don’t think Google ever published an uptime metric, but Loon did have its uses. At one point, Loon delivered connectivity to 200,000 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria knocked out the land-based infrastructure. A commercial Loon service launched in Kenya in 2020.

It sounds like the problem with Loon was that it was such a unique solution with tons of special equipment, and if you’re targeting people on the other side of the digital divide with little buying power, of course they can’t afford to pay for all that hardware by themselves. In this regard, a project like SpaceX’s Starlink seems better suited for bridging the digital divide. Starlink has the rich, developed world pay for the infrastructure, and then SpaceX could subsidize access for developing countries. Loon would have certainly been more convenient since it was a flying cell phone tower with a signal that beamed directly to your smartphone (Starlink requires a pizza-box-sized antenna) but when you’re talking about having no way to get the Internet at all, the more scalable solution seems better.

Some of Loon’s technology will live on in another Alphabet Internet access project, Project Taara, which aims to deliver the Internet via a giant laser beam. Google’s wild experiments never end, do they?

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