Confession time: I’m one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t played Minecraft yet. But researching the digital Lego phenomenon for an upcoming feature yielded some interesting analyst insights I thought I’d share.
Minecraft hit 100 million users recently – not bad for a title many thought Microsoft was a little ill-advised to pay $2.5bn for two years ago.
For IDC gaming research director, Lewis Ward, the purchase was made with one eye on showing off the Windows 10 OS – then in development.
“The ulterior motive was the idea of Windows 10-based Universal Apps, and this idea of Xbox Play Anywhere (XPA) games on Windows 10,” he told me. “Minecraft is a living example of how Microsoft’s new OS can support apps with the same codebase that works on multiple terminals, including PCs, game consoles and mobile devices. So it’s become Microsoft’s poster child in gaming for these types of apps and I think that was a big part of what led Microsoft to buy the company.”
There’s also plenty of debate at the moment about the future of Minecraft. Redmond recently signed a deal with Netease to license its mobile and PC versions, which could increase the game’s user base exponentially. There are also major opportunities in the AR and VR space. The synergies with Microsoft’s HoloLens AR platform and its ambitions in the education sector are obvious, according to Ward.
“If Lego helped me learn as a kid how to build stuff with others while having fun and being creative, and I remember playing with Lego all the time in first grade and crying when my parents forced me to sell my big bag of Lego around fourth grade, then Minecraft is the modern day equivalent and has a place in early education,” he argued.
“It’s a very accessible game and one that stresses the positive things in life; one that has truly universal appeal. I’m sure there are lots of great minds up in Redmond thinking about how the franchise can be used in certain vertical markets and business-centric scenarios.”
Microsoft released an Education Edition of the game earlier this year – a statement of intent if ever there was one. Minecrafters will be watching eagerly to see what it’s next play will be.
What does the future of virtual reality hold? I’ve got to say it’s not a question that has particularly bothered me from a corporate IT perspective – a feeling I’m sure shared by many CIOs out there. But the truth is that VR – and its slightly more sensible cousin, augmented reality – is already beginning to transform the way organisations work and engage with their customers.
Putting together a recent feature for IT Pro in Hong Kong, I spoke to several experts about the kind of use cases that VR and AR might best fit, and some of the key challenges facing manufacturers.
It’s pretty clear from most of the analysts I spoke to that those smartphone-based VR headsets like Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard are going to get end user traction much quicker than the high-end Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and others.
“Everyone has a smartphone so it makes the entry barrier for VR very low and affordable,” IDC European associate director, Chrystelle Labesque, told me. “Does it offer the best experience? Maybe not. But it does give people the chance to have their first VR experience.”
From a manufacturer’s point of view, each major player in the space – and virtually all of the world’s biggest tech companies have a stake in VR/AR – faces a difference set of challenges according to their commercial priorities, argued IHS Technology head of games research, Piers Harding-Rolls.
Samsung, for example is using VR to drive sales of its premium smartphones, he told me.
“We have already seen Samsung diversifying further with the Gear 360 camera to build of its VR ecosystem offer and to continue to differentiate as more and more smartphone vendors bring their own VR headsets to market,” Harding-Rolls added.
“Samsung is now using the Gear VR as a promotional and bundling tool to sell more phones, but the value of this offer may become diluted over time. So for Samsung the challenges centre on staying differentiated and building out the ecosystem successfully in the face of additional competition.”
As for those high-end players, it’s all about trying to drive down their prices to appeal to a broader market.
“Oculus has courted developers for over two years, but still does not have the scale of distribution and user base of Valve’s Steam or Sony’s PlayStation Network, so must build its own content and compete from a less established position,” he claimed. “As you can see the challenges differ from platform to platform.”
But this is talking about VR/AR from a consumer-focused perspective. The truth is that it’s already being used both inside companies and to create differentiated experiences for customers.
Labesque referenced a British Museum project last year that allowed visitors to experience the Bronze Age through Samsung Gear VR headsets, for example.
The Marriott hotel chain has also been an early adopter – using the power of Oculus Rift VR to transport users to far flung destinations, and in so doing build its brand and even drive potential sales.
When it comes to internal use cases, AR has the edge, according to the experts. Digital overlays can help with training, working to meet strict compliance requirements, and collaboration, among other things, Labesque explained.
On this front, Microsoft’s Hololens already has some impressive big name case studies to brag about.
So there you have it. If you’re a CIO and have the money and motivation – VR/AR is probably something you should be considering right now as part of a multi-year innovation project. If not, it won’t be long till your CEO is knocking at your door to find out why.