Microsoft’s smart mat ‘Zanzibar’ could be its bridge to augmented reality adoption

Kareem Anderson

According to a report from ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft is set to unveil the ultimate tabletop gamers fantasy piece of equipment with its Project Zanzibar, as well as what could be seen as a bridging tool for more robust augmented reality experiences with its HoloLens technology.

Project Zanzibar is a rollable mat with the ability to recognize tactile objects placed on it. Microsoft’s more detailed description of Zanzibar includes, “Zanzibar is a flexible and portable mat that can locate, uniquely identify and communicate with objects placed on its surface, as well as sense a user’s touch and hover hand gestures.”

Through the use of near field communication (NFC) technology, anything placed on the mat can be tracked as well as extend its location and object sensing beyond the physical limitations of the mat to most NFC enabled items.

As for my earlier reference about tabletop gameplay, Microsoft described a couple of use cases for the device, one of which included toys that were placed on the mat being ‘brought to life’ through an NFC connection to other hardware. For example, if a person were to place a figurine on the mat, the connection could enable additional sound effects or voice recordings to tell the figurine’s story or if paired with a HoloLens, an entire digital dreamscape could accompany that particular item.

Zanzibar, if fully produced, could open up a more affordable world with more immersive interactive elements for child lesson planning or games like Dungeons & Dragons, Heroclix, Dicemasters, Yugioh. Mary Jo Foley points out that Zanzibar could be the culmination or offshoot of Microsoft’s earlier efforts to actualize context focused tabletop interactions with the Surface Table (aka Play Table) or its unrelated but aptly named Xbox and Windows 10 initiative,“Play Anywhere.”

While Zanzibar is scheduled to be shown off at the ACM CHI Conference in Montreal this month, it’s noted as a Microsoft Garage project and with that comes the real possibility that it may never see the light of day as a fully realized consumer product.

However, there is hope as the recently updated Microsoft Launcher for Android started off as a Garage Project and is now viable Android experience found in the Google Play Store.