Minecraft HoloLens isn't a tech demonstration or experiment, not anymore.
The HoloLens version of the massively popular exploration and building game shown during Microsoft's press conference is a work-in-progress game that will eventually ship for Microsoft's augmented reality headset.
And it's a very different sort of Minecraft than the one Microsoft showed off in January back when the HoloLens was first unveiled to press. That was a really just a prototype designed to give people an idea of the gaming potential of the new headgear.
The Minecraft HoloLens experience is one of those moments that helps crystalize a baffling concept like holographic augmented reality into something that you simply "get" and most likely marvel at.
As Microsoft warned during its press conference earlier this week, Minecraft HoloLens isn't really what you saw up on its stage during the press conference. It is a private experience in a public space, unless you're playing with friends, who can join in without the need for another headset.
Viewed by a friend watching you play, they would see you sitting on a couch staring at the wall, or laying on your bed staring at your ceiling, or most likely, standing over your floor or table looking down. They'd probably see you pinching the air in front of your face, or tapping the air like you'd tap someone on the shoulder. They'd see you grabbing and moving your arm up and down and probably see you leaning back and forth, as if peering into an invisible window ... which is really what you're doing.
The HoloLens creates a sort of floating window
Microsoft's HoloLens isn't like a virtual reality headset, a device designed to overtake your world, to create a virtual playspace out of the darkness inside a set of goggles. Instead, the HoloLens creates a sort of floating window, through which you see this other world. Sometimes that other world can completely obfuscate reality, but more often than not, it augments it.
In the case of Minecraft, the HoloLens has two ways to interacting with the brick world. It can create a virtual television on your wall, which comes in three sizes: small, medium and large. Viewed from across the room while seated, it looks like a massive play space.
While playing this way, you can simply use your wall as a regular television, or you can have it turn your view into a typical television-created 3D perspective, or a true holographic 3D experiences. In these views, you can lean up against the wall to look inside the picture, all the way over, as if looking through a window that happens to open up upon the world of Minecraft.
While playing the game in this mode you use a regular Xbox One controller to play the game.
This seems like the sort of play that people will eventually spend most of their time using. It negates the need for a television, speakers or a computer - all of those are built into the Holo Lens.
But the stunning way to play Minecraft, the thing that will have you marveling at an empty table or the ground in front of your feet is when the game builds a 3D projection of itself into the real world.
In this mode, Minecraft is turned into a moving sculpture, built out of the bits and bricks of Minecraft graphics. You can use simple finger gestures to tap on the world or grab it and move it around. Voice commands allow you to zoom in and out. You can drop markers. And at least one friend can join you from a regular computer.
During my time with Minecraft I played with a developer who used a computer. While I had the ability to deliver damaging lighting strikes to the world around him with a gesture and voice command, I was mostly an observer. But what a way to observe.
I was able to pull the world up by its trees, peering into the underworld
It was captivating to stand at the edge of a table and watch a diminutive square-headed figure, sharp in its precision and color, ride a minecart down a steep hill and out of my view. I was also able to pull the world up by its trees and rocky landscape, peering into the underworld of the map and then use my finger and voice to mark a target. A beam of light shone down from the sky onto the spot, making it easy for fellow gamers to see where my marker was. Once placed, the marker also created a sign, the words of which I dictated by simply speaking: "Dig right here."
Matt Booty, general manager for Minecraft development in Redmond, said the Redmond team is focusing on the HoloLens version of the game, leaving Mojang to continue its focus on the PC version and "getting things done."
"At team Redmond we work on integrating Minecraft into things, like the HoloLens," he said. "Minecraft on HoloLens is a good example of the best of Mojang and the best of Microsoft coming together."
Work continues on this take on Minecraft, Booty said. There is still new functionality to add and features to explore.
"We really want the idea to be that HoloLens is a new way to experience Minecraft," he said. "A new window into the Minecraft world, as opposed to a new Minecraft."