When Microsoft said you’d be able to make Minecraft worlds appear in your living room with its new HoloLens headset, perhaps you squealed in glee. Or perhaps you wrote it off as smoke and mirrors. Not reality. Guess what? I just played it. Everything you saw on stage is real.
It exists. I played an actual build of actual Minecraft on the HoloLens, and it looked like that. The same Minecraft world, even.
OK, now for the caveats: real doesn’t mean “perfect” or “comfortable”. The HoloLens prototype headset is still exactly how I described it about a month ago. It’s a sleek, futuristic-looking headband that you pull over your noggin like a baseball cap, then cinch up against the base of your skull. It’s a little bit front-heavy, and you see some weird ghostly rainbowing effects in the corners of your vision.
The magical part is that unlike an Oculus Rift or competing VR headsets, the “display” is transparent, so you can see the real world around you, say, your living room. Computer-generated objects (in this case, Minecraft blocks) appear in the centre of your vision. They appear to take up space in the real world. The not-so-magical part is that you only see them in the centre of your vision. Turn your head even a little bit, and they’ll disappear from view.
But I digress. Minecraft! One of the world's most popular games, in your living room! Building worlds on your coffee table! But, how is it to play?
Amazingly, it’s exactly the same as the Xbox version — if you want it to be. Microsoft reps literally handed me an Xbox 360 gamepad and had me run around in two dimensions destroying blocks that looked at me cross-eyed, with absolutely no respect for their craftsmanship. It felt good, if a little flat and boring. (Never mind that the 2D screen I was playing on was not an actual television, but a virtual television I pinned to a wall.)
Next up: 3D. I simply uttered the word “3D,” and a second later the HoloLens’s voice recognition processing turned that screen stereoscopic. Suddenly, my Minecraft world had depth. It extended maybe a metre or so into the wall, like a 3D movie scene. Cool. But the words “Reality Mode” made it much cooler. All of a sudden the wall of my demo room became a window — all but literally — into the Minecraft world. I could walk up to it, peek around, and see the world awaiting me on the other side. controlling my Minecraft character in third-person as he or she walked around.
But of course, the piece de resistance was placing that world on my coffee table. It’s as easy as saying “Place World” and looking at a flat surface. (It doesn’t have to be a table: I went way off script and put it on the ground for a bit.)
Right now, you can’t see your whole Minecraft world at a time, mind you: only a big chunk. (See the picture above? That’s roughly how much you see at any given moment — not counting the Hololens’s narrow field of view.) But you can literally pull the world around with your finger and thumb to see more of it. I placed my hand in front of my face, snapped thumb and forefinger together, and lifted a huge chunk of the surface of the world skyward to see deep into the caves below.
I found a player wandering the world, leaned in, and looked down on them from the heavens like a god. (I set his house on fire with a lightning strike — just say “Lightning Strike” — but left him unscathed. A mildly benevolent god, I suppose.)
I teleported myself to the top of a tower just by looking at where, on the huge stack of Minecraft blocks in my living room, I wanted to teleport, and then I was back to the more traditional 2D or 3D views where I could get back to building.
I won’t lie: it was tiring to keep the HoloLens prototype on my head for so long, dealing with the narrow field of view. Having to remember where I left my virtual playthings, instead of simply turning my head towards things I can already see in the corners of my vision like in the real world. As it stands, I’m not sure I’d play Minecraft continually with HoloLens; I might spend long hours building up worlds in 2D to start.
But I would happily contemplate those amazing creations from the perspective of a god.