It happened in July 2016. That was when Nintendo released Pokemon Go to the world. The first mass market, augmented reality game exploded. By the end of the year, it had been downloaded 500 million times. By early 2019, it had passed a billion downloads and generated more than $3 billion in revenue. It had also generated mass gatherings, with thousands of people descending on "pokestops" to catch rare Pokemons that turned up in real-world settings. And it wasn't just child's play. Millions of adults have played Pokemon Go, as well (including this author.)

It looked like technology had finally bridged the gap between the real world and the digital world. We were now in a whole new place.

But nothing happened. Other companies failed to cash in on the interest that Pokemon Go generated. Either they struggled to come up with good augmented reality game ideas, or they were distracted by virtual reality headsets, but other AR apps and games just didn't break out in the same way.

That is likely about to change.

Minecraft Earth has now launched on phones--and it's got potential to be a pop culture phenomenon.

Minecraft may well be the most popular computer game ever. By allowing players to build virtual worlds out of digital bricks, it managed to combine the timeless fun of Lego with the latest digital technology. The game is now owned by Microsoft, which paid Swedish company Mojang $2.5 billion to own it.

The new version places constructions in the real world. Instead of trying to fit a digital castle into a screen, players can use their screens to build three-dimensional castles on their desks, in their living rooms, or in their bedrooms. They can even scale them up, so they become a part of the digital environment they've created.

It's a whole new way of engaging and interacting with technology.

So why will Minecraft Earth change the digital world in a way that Pokemon Go didn't?

There are two reasons.

The first is that Minecraft has proved it can deliver long-lasting fun. Pokemon Go might still be around, but its craze was short-lived. Those who continue playing do so more for the community than the game play. As one still-dedicated player in Singapore told the South China Morning Post earlier this year: "To be honest, the game itself sucks--seriously. It's why many of my friends have 'retired.' But I love the team spirit it fosters."

But Minecraft doesn't suck. It's as educational as Lego, and offers even more creative opportunities. That it's also digital means kids who play are developing both engineering skills and technical skills. It's the kind of video game that even parents can approve of.

The second reason is that Minecraft Earth appears to make genuine good use of its augmented reality. It's not just going to put Pokemon in places on maps; it's going to turn bedrooms into fortresses and kitchen tables into castles. People will play it, and they'll keep on playing it.

And as more and more people play it, they'll wonder what else they can put in an augmented reality space.

It doesn't take much to imagine creative people and artists building new constructs that augment existing landmarks. For example, can't you see a Hogwarts-size castle being created next to the Grand Canyon? How about a field of flowers next to the Great Pyramid of Giza? In the future, tour guides will point out augmented reality pieces as showpieces for their region.

Pokemon Go showed us that augmented reality has potential. Minecraft Earth realizes that potential and promises a whole new world of possibilities.

Published on: Nov 13, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.