Microsoft's Project Zanzibar smart mat can bring toys, more into the digital world

Microsoft has long been looking at ways to blend our digital and physical worlds, with the most obvious fruit of those efforts being HoloLens and mixed reality. Today, however, Microsoft's research arm took the wraps off of its latest effort, a physical, rollable mat called Project Zanzibar.

At its most basic level, Project Zanzibar is a physical mat that lets you interface with a computer or tablet through a mix of near field communication and touch. This opens up a variety of scenarios in which you can use different objects and touch to play games or bring physical toys and into the digital world.

Microsoft envisions a number of different ways in which Project Zanzibar could be used, with a heavy emphasis on giving children a way to bring their toys to life. Kids could move toys around on the mat's surface while a digital version at the same time. Extending this further, the footage could be captured to make a short movie.

Other potential scenarios involve games, including placing physical cards on the mat to bring them into a digital card game. If you grew up playing Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh, then you can imagine how exciting it would be to see the static monsters on your cards come to life as you play them. In a way, Project Zanzibar feels similar to what Nintendo has done with its Amiibo figures, which use NFC to unlock characters and other perks in games, but with far more interactivity thanks to the mat's ability to sense the position of objects and translate that to a game or activity.

Of course, there's an educational element to this as well. The Project Zanzibar team took inspiration from the Montessori Method, which emphasizes physical activity's role in teaching kids academic concepts, in devising exercises for kids. "For example, the Letter Plates Montessori exercise provides feedback as words are formed and tactile letter-shapes are traced," Microsoft says. "Paper overlays on the Project Zanzibar mat do not interfere with functionality and provide additional context to the exercise."

Project Zanzibar certainly looks interesting, and it could show potential not only for interesting new games but in the classroom as well. As for whether the prototype will ever end up as a shipping product, that's up in the air. However, as ZDNet reports, Microsoft is set to reveal more about the project at the ACM CHI Conference in Montreal later in April.