Can Minecraft in AR transform spatial design?

Could Minecraft change the world? I mean that literally: on its 10th anniversary, the makers of the world’s best-selling video game – owner Microsoft reported in March that it has 91 million monthly active players – are launching a version that will take its building blocks into everyday surroundings. ‘Create and build on any flat surface in tabletop mode with 3D holograms!,’ it says of Minecraft Earth. ‘Then place your builds at life-size with augmented reality and experience what it’s like to walk through them.’

Compared with the most recent AR gaming phenomenon, Pokemon Go, which is primarily about discovering game elements in your immediate environment, what Minecraft is proposing is a leap forward, with players able to collaborate on and interact with that environment themselves. For gamers, having a canvas this large brings compelling opportunities to expand on Minecraft’s existing offer – as a first-person game in which you transform a landscape with a range of materials and rules, in tandem with others. 

More than a game, however, Minecraft is also design software. In that respect, it seems ripe for exploitation for construction and design, in which AR technology has obvious applications in helping to visualize and adapt plans in situ. ‘It disrupts that relationship between something being designed to something being fabricated,’ says architect Luke Pearson, whose London-based practice You+Pea explores the integration of videogame technologies into architectural design.

Minecraft Earth could open up the creation of the built environment to the public in a way that was previously unimaginable

In short, Minecraft Earth could open up the creation of the built environment to the public in a way that was previously unimaginable in an era of proprietary software and impenetrable planning systems. Imagine, for example, if community groups could make virtual renders of new developments in the neighbourhood accessible to everyone before they are approved and built? UN-Habitat – a United Nations programme focused on the future of urbanism – is already interested in trialling the platform as a means to engage people with the development of towns and cities. ‘It’s a tool that's very immediate and that lots of people can understand, which helps break down the boundary between the public and the practice of architecture,’ Pearson says.

There are downsides, however. Minecraft Earth is likely to challenge the lines of private property and people’s rights of access to an even greater extent than Pokemon Go did. Developer Niantic was successfully sued last year for instigating a  ‘continuing invasion’ of people’s homes in search of rare Pokemon species. An inventive piece of Minecraft architecture placed in front of your home will likely attract a similar crowd of smartphone-wielding visitors. Whether spatial design’s digitally democratic future will survive this new flavour of NIMBYism remains to be seen.

This piece was originally featured in our Sep – Oct 2019 issue, Frame 130. Get your copy here.

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