Microsoft’s Project Zanzibar is an object-sensing mat that could be the future of toys

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Toys, like tech, are constantly evolving. Not as fast as, say, smartphones do but they do take strides from time to time. Microsoft’s Research division may have shown off the future of toys with the unveiling of Project Zanzibar, an object-sensing mat featuring tech in keeping with the company’s Mixed Reality focus of late.

Unlike the Hololens, Project Zanzibar deals more in the tangible. Zanzibar is an object-sensing mat able to recognise and track the positions of several objects at once. It’s able to recognise basic shapes and is, with the addition of an NFC sticker, also able to cope with far more complex shapes. Zanzibar is able to pair its play mat with screens, like current tablets, using a Bluetooth connection, meaning that the tech is instantly accessible.

This leaves the door open for some very interesting toy-based applications. Physical toys that children can interact with digitally, along the lines of Activision’s Skylanders but with a much broader scope, could become the norm. Seeing toy soldiers duking it out on-screen and in our imaginations is an experience our childhood selves never even suspected existed.

And it doesn’t stop at toys crossing the physical-digital divide: The demo video for Zanzibar (below) shows a small, toy-based film studio being set up, complete with a camera with varying zoom levels, using nothing more than a few plastic objects. It’s possible that it could serve as a video game controller as well, with a trading card game being used as an example here. An online game of Magic: The Gathering using your actual cards is just the first thing that comes to mind.

And if you’re paying attention, Microsoft also shows off interaction between the high-tech placemat and the Hololens — which could dispense with the need for a screen altogether. That’s one heck of a game of make-believe.

The potential for Project Zanzibar is greater than just toys, as awesome as that might seem right now. Education is, arguably, an even better application for Microsoft’s object-sensing mat. The video above shows off the basic educational facilities possible, from teaching reading and even writing with the tracing function. Using a video game-like interface could also confer these concepts faster than ordinary teaching methods alone. Basic programming, which is fast becoming a skill that will have to be taught to almost all children at school levels, could also be taught using Zanzibar.

Just don’t look for this device in stores, yet. Microsoft Research is the company’s tech incubator, and not every project makes it out alive. This one has a good shot at making it, at least, as Microsoft is reportedly showing off Zanzibar at the ACM CHI Conference later this month. Hopefully it won’t take too long to get from there to a retail shelf where everyone can have one.

Source: Microsoft Research

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