Column The future often arrives looking like an expensive toy. From the first microcomputer to the latest self-piloting drone, these "toys" hide a larger truth: they're the canvas upon which our imagination plays, as we dream up braver, bolder visions. We think physically, with our bodies, and our toys help us get our hands around what we think.
That's what makes Minecraft Earth so interesting. At a casual glance, it looks like little more than the latest-and-greatest revision of the most influential video game of the past generation. But it's more like an iceberg – the tiny visible portion hides a vast, sunken volume. Look underneath: all of Microsoft's new strengths in augmented reality and cloud computing support a venerable title.
For half a decade, Hololens and Azure seemed as though they marched to the tune of different drummers, in different directions, but in Minecraft Earth these paths unexpectedly cross. Microsoft has best-in-class capabilities to map spaces from a smartphone camera, plus the cloud infrastructure to store, remember, compare and retrieve those maps. This is not just a database in the cloud; it's now a three-dimensional fully spatialised map of our world.
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That map remains largely empty. Even Google, mapping our world longer than anyone, has barely gotten a start. Why? The world's too big for even a trillion-dollar business to capture and organise. That would take a larger army – billions of people, each mapping their world.
When Pokémon Go exploded onto the scene back in 2016, it set its Pokéstops and other Pokéhemera within a world map created by maker Niantic's first augmented reality title, Ingress. Niantic used Ingress players to map the world, then used that world map for its next title – just as it has used the map created by millions of Pokémon Go players for its new Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Niantic's "spatial crowdsourcing" harvests player data to populate a map of the world.
Copying this technique for Minecraft Earth, Microsoft will soon have tens of millions of young adults – who grew up playing Minecraft – walking around, smartphone in hand, looking for and creating their own corners of a Minecrafted Earth, all the while both adding to the detail in the map (stored via Azure's "Spatial Anchors"), and content to the Minecraft Earth world.
If it reaches a high enough level of excitement, the whole process could feed on itself, amping up into an army of Minecrafters intent on finding, sharing and augmenting much of the surface of the planet. And Microsoft could – in short order – find itself with an embarrassment of riches as Minecraft Earth players gift it with an increasingly accurate spatial capture of the planet.
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It's here that the toy starts to look like a tool. While we've mapped out the inner space of human knowledge with Google, Bing and Wikipedia, we have no such guide to the real world. We haven't married the real to the virtual in any meaningful way – except in our toys (like Pokémon Go) and in our maps. Microsoft looks to be positioning itself as the dominant force as these toys become tools and the map of the world becomes the world itself.
What does that mean? Instead of Pokémon, or towers of blocks, consider the world as a database: everything that's known about everything that resides in the physical world. It's almost a bit overwhelming – that's a lot of data – but it's also the next place our tools (and our toys) are leading us. We've mastered the human space of knowledge so well we can both make it and fake it. Now we'll turn our eyes outwards, take the world in, build on it, annotate it, remember it, locate it, and share it with one another.
With Minecraft Earth, all of this sits atop Microsoft's augmented reality tools, cloud services, and software stack, creating a cycle of value and utility that the company needs to power its next generation of tools and services. How long before they rename the colossus of Redmond Minecraft, Inc? ®