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Meet Microsoft HoloLens' killer app: Minecraft

Minecraft in augmented reality re-appeared at Microsoft's E3 press conference, hoping to make a big splash. It was a sort of Game Boy-meets-Tetris moment.

Now Playing: Watch this: Minecraft + HoloLens = Whoa!

LOS ANGELES -- Tumble some bricks on a table, and start playing. This isn't Lego: it's augmented-reality Minecraft.

Microsoft's new augmented-reality HoloLens head-mounted display is fascinating, but still a mystery. What games it will play -- or even, how much it will cost -- are still unknown. But Microsoft's onstage demo of HoloLens at E3 2015 was tremendously impressive...once again, because of Minecraft.

Every technology needs a killer app. Minecraft, owned by Microsoft, looks like it's just that. Minecraft, a the wildly popular game in which players build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world, played a role in a press event earlier this year in which the HoloLens technology was unveiled for the first time. At E3, Minecraft returned, and it looks even better at this demo.

As a camera with a HoloLens attached to its lens watched someone on stage play a game, it projected onto a virtual TV screen. But then, it leaped onto a table and became an entire 3D Minecraft world, fully zoomable and able to be explored. Suddenly, it was like someone dumped a box of Legos on a playmat. As the player pinched and zoomed, the Minecraft world expanded out, or swooped in to see tiny details in the massive construction.

Minecraft seems like Microsoft's way of making us believe in HoloLens. Josh Miller/CNET

The crowd (always hard to judge at a press conference) hooted as a Minecraft building and hilltop were raised up, lowered, and spun around. The cameraman got closer, and we could look into the Minecraft castle. Walls became invisible, and inner structures revealed themselves, like an ant farm.

It was easy to understand: build your own fun toys on a table! It was crystal-clear. That's what a complex technology like HoloLens needs to capture the imagination: a simple, magical premise made real.

Josh Miller/CNET

However, it looks like HoloLens, and augmented reality in general, will work better for building and crafting-type games, versus first-person immersive adventures. Virtual reality transports you somewhere else: augmented reality, like HoloLens, brings something real to the table...literally.

Microsoft already has an involvement with Oculus Rift , and has also announced future compatibility with Valve VR. How many helmets can we be excited about at once? HoloLens, at least, is a different, unique proposition. It does things differently. And Minecraft is a great example of showing how different it can be.

Josh Miller/CNET

I'm not sure how many games would translate well to HoloLens. But I could think of some where this would be amazing: construction sets like Nintendo's Mario Maker (but in 3D), tabletop strategy games, large-scale world-management games. For now, those could be HoloLens' ways of showing off why it, and not VR, is worth paying attention to. After all, you can only keep one headset on your face at a time.

Follow all the latest news from E3 2015 on CNET and GameSpot.