First look at virtual reality Minecraft at Xbox showcase

  • 1 March 2016
  • From the section Technology
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Media captionWatch: Oculus thinks Minecraft is more immersive on its VR headset

Minecraft is already adored by millions of gamers around the world - now Microsoft has shown us what the immersive world looks like in virtual reality.

Microsoft bought the block-building phenomenon in 2014 for $2.5bn (£1.8bn) - a huge deal that had fans of the game worried about its future.

The US firm promised not to ruin its popular formula, and instead said it would invest in bringing Minecraft to the next level.

At an event in San Francisco's trendy Mission District, its Xbox division showed off the virtual reality version of Minecraft for the first time.

"It makes you feel like you're inside the world of Minecraft," said Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus Rift VR headset.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption First deliveries of the consumer edition of the Rift headset are set to begin soon

Like many VR experiences, it's utterly absorbing. For those obsessed with Minecraft's addictive building process, it is a big step up from watching it on a normal screen.

But for a game popular with children, there's one figure that might worry parents: $1,500.

That's the suggested amount they'll need to spend if they want to buy an Oculus Rift headset and a PC powerful enough to power it.

That's surely too expensive, I suggested to Mr Luckey.

"It isn't," he said.

"I mean, it is expensive relative to everything else out in the world, but if you look at it compared to a mobile phone or television, you're getting a lot more technology.

"It's not like this is simple hardware, and the cost is going to go down over time."

Image copyright Microsoft
Image caption The Rift headset displays a view of Minecraft's virtual world to each of the player's eyes

It'll need to go down pretty sharp-ish if it is to be adopted by mainstream audiences soon.

Until then, I'd predict a minor resurgence of the games arcade, a place where people go to play high-end games that they can't feasibly afford to buy for their homes.

Big titles

Minecraft on Oculus was one of several games on display at Xbox's Spring Showcase, a chance for journalists - and a few influential YouTube gamers, naturally - to get hands-on with tomorrow's blockbusters.

Image copyright Microsoft Studios
Image caption Quantum Break features time-bending gameplay

I lost an hour within the gripping world of Quantum Break. It's a game in which you play Jack Joyce, an unwilling action hero who develops the ability to manipulate time after an experiment gone awry.

If that sounds like yet another predictable scenario for a game, you'd be right - but the title's mechanics (think "bullet time", only better) make it something special.

Also look out for Tom Clancy's The Division - set in a painstakingly true-to-life Manhattan.

Many of the titles on show were also being pushed as great to play on PC, via Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system.

Media captionXbox One chief Phil Spencer discusses his plans for the console

"If you look at the numbers, PC gaming is the fastest growing segment of gaming out there," said head of Xbox Phil Spencer.

"It's natural that we'd focus on gaming on Windows."

Virtual plans

When it comes to virtual reality, Microsoft has opted not to make its own headset - although it is developing the augmented reality-focused Hololens - but is instead working to make itself compatible with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

On the price debate, Mr Spencer said he believed virtual reality would follow the path of high definition TVs - a luxury item to start with, but hard to resist once experienced.

"The early adopters will be there to help spur the VR industry," he said.

Image copyright HTC
Image caption HTC's Vive is higher-specced but also has a higher price tag

Given that Sony's PlayStation 4 will be getting its own VR headset, I asked if Microsoft too might consider making its own gear.

"I absolutely think it could be something that is part of our roadmap," he said. But he stressed the focus now was entirely on making Windows 10 fully-compatible with high-end VR titles.

'Not hacked'

Of course, new games mean nothing unless gamers can get online to play them. And of late, that's been something of a challenge.

Poor reliability on Xbox Live - the service Xbox gamers use to play against each other over the internet - has stressed out thousands.

Disgruntled fans include rapper Snoop Dogg, who - in a video too profane to link to here - begged Bill Gates to fix the problem or he'd defect to PlayStation.

Mr Spencer apologised for the issues.

"It's obviously always regretful," he said.

"This last outage was a concern, we learned from it. We understood exactly what the issue was, it just took a little more time that we would have liked."

Image copyright Microsoft
Image caption Microsoft denies that hackers were the cause of problems with its Xbox Live service

He denied that the company had been the victim of a hack, saying that while its network was under constant attack it was not, as had been claimed, felled by a coordinated effort to cut gamers off.

And on the risk of losing Snoop Dogg: "Snoop's been a long-time gamer and long-time supporter of Xbox.

"I understand when people get upset. I take it as a sign of the love and commitment people have for what we are as a game platform."

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