Microsoft first setup its research subsidiary way back in 1991. The intent was to solve difficult problems and advance the state-of-the-art in computing. That’s great, but every so often the more than 1,000-strong team at Microsoft Research creates something that makes you, at least internally, go “wow.”
Project Zanzibar is one of those creations. As the project website explains, the Zanzibar research team started with a simple thought, “What if we could blur the divide between the physical and digital worlds? What if you could play with physical toys, cards, and blocks, and watch your actions come alive on the screen?” The end result is a flexible, portable mat with state-of-the-art tech built-in.
As the video below shows, using Zanzibar allows you to interact with real-world objects. Simply place an object on the mat and see it come to life on screen. If you don’t have a screen, audio enhancements are still available to use. Each object has a globally unique identifier, so not only is it recognized automatically, Zanzibar keeps a record of how you use an object and forms a history for it.
Objects are tracked by location, movement, and orientation on the mat using low-cost NFC stickers. A unique sticker allows for the object history to be stored and later accessed/updated. An extender tag allows for stacked objects to also be recognized, and I/O tags allow for further interaction such as button presses and LED light toggles. The mat will also sense hand movements, multi-touch input, and even your smartphone which can be moved across the mat to change what is shown on the display.
For children in particular, Zanzibar holds a lot of potential in terms of creativity. They can use their toys to tell interactive stories which are recorded so that others can watch them later. For education, it can be an interactive tool for learning to spell, write, solve math equations, or answer a series of questions using objects, letters, or words. Then of course we have games, with card games in particular being greatly enhanced when used with the mat, but augmented reality also holding a lot of potential.
Microsoft Research will be running a demo of Zanzibar during the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems beginning Monday, April 23 in Montreal, Canada. After that, hopefully Zanzibar gets turned into a real product. It certainly has the potential to challenge Nintendo Labo as the “toy” kids want, if not this year then next.