This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
More than 20 million people use their imaginations to create endless virtual worlds in Minecraft (2009). Unlike most games, however, players (rather than developers) push the boundaries of Minecraft’s expansiveness. They build everything from virtual voxel versions of the Taj Mahal to the entire country of Denmark, replicas of things that exist in the real world but can be shared and modified in world of Minecraft. “The Minecraft community brings together coders, artists, musicians and content creators from all over,” said Razz, a modder best known for her decorative block models. Razz said many players are using Minecraft mods to transform the game beyond its original intent. These Minecrafters aren’t just playing a game, they’re shaping the future of virtual and augmented reality entertainment.
Minecraft Goes Virtual
Years ago, the Minecraft modding community caught the attention of John Carmack, CTO of Oculus who is virtual reality (VR) evangelist and famed game developer of the original Doom (1993). At the Oculus developer conference earlier this year, Carmack called Minecraft “the single most important application we can do for VR.” He said Minecraft has the potential to create a “metaverse,” or 3D virtual space that invites people to congregate and be physically present with one another. With its infinite worlds, and links between servers and user-generated content, he sees Minecraft bridging virtual creation with physical space. Microsoft has been working to bring Minecraft to life with the augmented reality headset Hololens. At the recent E3 event, they showed off a demo that set both Minecrafters and tech journalists abuzz with new possibilities.
Though still in the prototyping phase, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president Kudo Tsunoda told The Guardian the Hololens is an incredible tools for digital world modders and creators. “Most people don’t have an inherent understanding of how to create in 3D — it can be very complicated on 2D screens,” he said. Augmented reality can allow for more intuitive user-generated content. “I think we’re going to see more communities adding to and customizing the games they play, and that will be very cool,” he said.
The mixed-reality approach suits Minecrafters so perfectly that real-life electronic building blocks known as littleBits are now being used in the game to blend hardware modding with software modding. With bitCraft, modders can use littleBits’ hardware in conjunction with Minecraft’s “redstone” (a building block that acts as something of an electrical current) to invent objects that seamlessly jump from one reality to another. “It’s a way to give a real-world presence to the things they make,” said Stan Okrasinski, the developer of bitCraft. “In connecting to the real world, you think about Minecraft in a different way. On the base level, it feels like magic.” Liza Stark, a bitCraft modder and educator, explained how this mixed reality can expand the horizon for Minecraft as a teaching tool.
“It offers a completely new play experience that requires a different set of problem-solving and critical thinking skills,” she said. “Since you are building in real life and in a digital space, you must negotiate how they interact.” Modders have used bitCraft to create trap door intruder alerts that trigger an actual alarm, dimmable light switch for setting the mood for a reenactment of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and an entire Minecraft smart home. Block Maker from VoidAlpha, yet another piece of new tech, uses Intel’s RealSense camera to 3D scan real world objects and render them in Minecraft’s virtual world.
By turning object by hand or on a turntable in front of the camera, a digital version of the object is created and ready for the voxel world of Minecraft. Mark Day, chief executive at VoidAlpha, sees Block Maker as a new spin on the toy-to-life trend, where physical figurines and objects can be used to “teleport” the player into the game world. “Something you’re intimately familiar with in the real world can suddenly become part of your virtual world,” said Day. “It’s an inverse of the toy-to-life. It’s life-to-toy.” Unlike the existing toy-to-life games like Activision’s Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Nintendo’s Amiibos, Block Maker allows kids to bring any item, like a beloved teddy bear or even a pet hamster, into the virtual space. “People spend hours and hours creating amazing worlds, but they can only build what they have at their disposal,” said Eric Mansion, RealSense Evangelist at Intel. “The idea of being able to bring real-world items into their amazing Minecraft creations is understandably very attractive.”
Though yet to be released, many modders anticipate Block Maker as a way to significantly cut down on the hours upon hours it takes to create objects for Minecraft. Razz said its capabilities could save “modelers and modders quite a few hours of work.” Just how Minecraft Hololens makes creating in 3D space easier, Block Maker was also designed to lower the barrier to entry for potential Minecraft creators, regardless of their modding skills. “I wanted somebody’s nine-year-old kid to be able to use it,” said Day. “It’s a way for them to add objects that are personalized to their Minecraft adventures.”
Others, like bitCraft modder Brendon Trombley, believe Block Maker could blur the line between reality and virtuality in user-generated content even further. “Imagine scanning an object into Minecraft using Block Maker, linking that to a 3D printer, then printing that object in real life, except now it’s Minecraft-ified!” he said. In the end, however, Minecraft needs little help when it comes to immersing and grounding its players in a seemingly real virtual world. “Ask any player and they’ll tell you their in-game experiences feel real in ways that a non-player might not understand,” said Trombley.
All Minecraft images display modder Razz’s work.