Smart mat blurs the digital and physical worlds

April 16, 2018 // By Rich Pell
Tech giant Microsoft (Redmond, WA) has revealed that it is working on a portable, rollable smart mat that can sense objects that are placed on it and then interface with a smart device or computer "to blend the physical world with the digital."

Called Project Zanzibar, the physical sensing platform is able to locate, sense, and communicate with objects, as well as sense a user's touch. It combines capacitive sensing and near-field communication (NFC) to enable multi-touch and hover gesture input to coexist with physical object manipulation and control, enabling new possibilities for areas such as games and educational tools.

The mat also offers portability in a tangible user interface by using existing devices such as tablets for a display. The flexible mat can be rolled up and carried or stored away until needed, and can be used anywhere there is a device with a screen available.

"The question driving us over a number of years was how you make interacting with a computer a very natural, invisible thing," says Microsoft Senior Researcher Nicolas Villar. "Our fascination was with making the technology invisible so that you get the power of technology without it feeling like you are using technology."

The company provides examples of applications that the mat makes possible. For example, says Villar, "What if you could play with toys and cards and blocks, while watching your actions come alive on screen?"

Since every physical object in "the Project Zanzibar world" has a globally unique ID, each toy or object can learn and possess its own history and the capability to tell its story. As a result, says the company, collectible cards can gain value over time, and dolls could conceivably "grow up" alongside a child, with shared experiences remembered and replayable over time.

In addition, the company envisions a Project Zanzibar movie maker scenario, in which children can tell stories by physically interacting with their toys on the Project Zanzibar mat while at the same generating an animated movie. Users can tell stories by manipulating toys and props on the mat to control corresponding graphical avatars, previewing and capturing the result as a movie on the screen of a connected device.


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