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 (opens in new tab).

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.

Dan Thorp-Lancaster

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the former Editor-in-Chief of Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl

  • Another useless toy that will be half-ass-developed and then rott in hell until it's abandoned. Just make a freakin mobile future!!!!
  • Sorry for resulting to such strong words but are you a bloody moron? This is a Microsoft Research project not a commercial product. There is literally no consumer base or product to abandoned, it's just an idea. If you can't post a sensible comment stay out of the comment sections.
  • Still confused why you're here then
  • Probably to express his opinion and view. I thought this is what a comment section is for.
  • Could see magic the gathering make use of this. They still make money selling cards too.
  • This technology could be real useful for doing things I've been wanting to implement in a D&D game to use miniatures. Just tracking the placement of each one could help a lot in the context of using software to project a battle map in a monitor or TV and just have each player move their mini.
  • Well, you'll have to wait, and see, who actual brings it to fruition....
  • D&D obtains license from MS and make a product outta it.
  • Right
  • Surface Pro 3 and Lumia 930? That looks like a pretty old video.
  • The project is over 2 years old
    There's even a surface book hidden away in the video.
  • Another cool project Microsoft will spend time, and resources, on, and do nothing with it. Meanwhile, the world sits back, and watches another organization actually do something tangible with the same idea?
  • By mistake you have added a question mark at the end of your text.
  • Nope. That question mark spells sarcasm, or rather,, a rhetorical question... It's highly facetious condescendanc on my part.... Yes, I have no faith that MS will do anything with this project, as we've seen so many times before. And, the argument that "it's a garage project, and they aren't supposed to do anything with it" is weak, and only suggest that the entire garage program is a waste, and should be shut down, if other companies can get the same ideas into consumers hands, but MS can't.
  • Hehe, you missed my sarcasm. I am making a joke that the question mark does not belong because it should not be a question. It should be what's expected of Microsoft. No follow through. I know it wasn't added by mistake.
  • Lol.. Oh, I see. I'm the one who missed the sarcasm. 😂😂😂
  • Thay always have unique projects names, Zanzibar, Balthazar, Spartacus etc ☺. Kidding 💕
  • Unique projects call for unique names. But we all know end result matters more than ideas.
  • so happy with Microsoft renaisannance...great garage and concepts as always. thanks for sharing
  • All these comments of doom and gloom. And yet the new financials come in. And guess what? MS overtakes the mighty Amazon to regain 2nd spot as the 2nd biggest company in the world. And made big gains on Apple. Pretty impressive for a software company supposedly being outdone by other software companies. Shows how much armchair keyboard warriors on forums know. Hahahaha.