Microsoft has detailed Project Zanzibar, a research effort involving the development of a smart mat that takes physical toys and presents them on a display, combining real-world and digital play into a single experience. To put it simply, Microsoft says Project Zanzibar is a smart mat that can sense touch and physical items using NFC, in part. The technology could open the door to new types of gaming experiences.
The idea here seems fairly simple. Displays (smartphones, tablets, etc) are found just about anywhere and you’re likely to have one on you regardless of where you’re at. A flexible smart mat that is easily toted around could be a great accessory for these display-based devices, expanding game play and offering interaction with digital applications, such as games.
In addition to recognizing user touch, the smart mat can detect devices, like small toys, that feature NFC chips. The system is able to detect the toy’s position and orientation, even as the user moves it, with a digital avatar of the physical item showing up on the display. These could also include playing cards, as demonstrated in the video above, that are part of a mobile game.
Microsoft presents different scenarios that could involve Project Zanzibar, one of course being for play, but other including hands-on learning and acquiring tracking data. Not all items or touches need to physically contact the mat. The NFC technology enables Zanzibar to detect gestures made above the mat, such as a swiping motion made in the air, as well as tags up to 30mm move the mat’s surface.
The Microsoft Research team has published a paper detailing the smart mat and the technology that makes it possible. The paper is publicly available here, and will be presented at CHI 2018 in Montreal later in April.