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Microsoft may believe it has made augmented reality's killer app: the just-announced Minecraft Earth for iOS and Android.
AR on mobile devices may carry tremendous potential, but it's easy enough to argue that the mainstream value proposition hasn't arrived yet. Pokémon Go is probably the most oft-cited “killer app” for AR, but it's only barely a true AR app. And there are some neat shopping apps and educational tools (from Warby Parker and Ikea, for example) but none of them have made a big dent in the mainstream consciousness.
At first glance, Minecraft Earth seems a bit like Pokémon Go, given that it seems to be location aware in some ways. But there's a bit more to it than that. Players will be able to construct builds on their living room tables either alone or in collaboration with others, then go and place them full-size in the outside world when they're ready. You can collect new mobs (both familiar and new) and resources around you to incorporate in your build, then fight them in the life-size version of the build. Fundamentally, it appears to be the basic Minecraft experience translated to augmented reality with geolocation features.
Microsoft acquired Minecraft from its creator in 2014, and has (mostly successfully) sought to turn it into a family-friendly, educational gaming and creative powerhouse. Interestingly, the company previously demoed an AR version of Minecraft at the E3 gaming conference using the company's HoloLens AR platform. That platform is still in development, but it seems the game is probably not, as HoloLens has pivoted to focus on commercial and professional rather than consumer use cases.
Minecraft Earth runs on Azure PlayFab, a platform used by various game developers for multiplayer experiences. According to Engadget's Devindra Hardawar, who got some hands-on time with the game, the game “relies on Open Street Maps for basic mapping data, as well as Azure Spatial Anchors to keep track of all the players.” Also, Windows Central has a deep-dive on the various gameplay elements.
Microsoft says a “limited beta” will begin in the summer, but hasn't yet indicated when the public launch will happen. The company did, however, clarify in its FAQ that Minecraft Earth will be free to play on both iOS and Android, but without any loot boxes. That said, we don't know anything about this game's pricing structure, and free-to-play games run a range from fair to outrageous, so we'll have to wait and see.
<em>Listing image by <a href="https://www.minecraft.net/en-us/earth">Minecraft</a></em>