Seamlessly bridging the physical and digital worlds has proved to be a significant challenge for even the world’s most advanced electronic manufacturers. While HP has made considerable strides with their “mixed reality” Sprout platform, the creative market has grown to favor more portable tablets and laptops over full-fledged desktop platforms.

With Project Zanzibar, the Microsoft Research Team hopes to blur further the distinction between the digital and physical worlds—this time, in a portable implementation that can be rolled up, stowed, and paired with existing tablet computers.

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While their early prototypes focus on expanding toy sets into interactive experiences (including creating animated 3D rendered movies that mirrored how children were playing with the physical toys), it’s easy to see just how far this technology could go in professional applications.

“The physical world is such a rich place, abundant with dimensionality and materiality,” explains Project Zanzibar Researcher Haiyan Zhang in a company blog post. “Our vision is to tap into that richness and imbue it with that digital magic. We hope that Project Zanzibar is a step in that direction.”

Project Zanzibar: A Portable and Flexible Tangible Interaction Platform

In their preliminary research, the team explored traditional Montessori exercises where multi-sensory learning and self-directed activities enhanced traditional learning exercises.

The brains behind Project Zanzibar—the portable mat—is a self-contained operation using scalable NFC coverage. The coverage is capable of localizing tags, capacitive sensing to detect object footprints, touch, and hover input, and includes a tracking system that fuses NFC-based and capacitive-based tracking information to report interaction events.

“(The) moment for tangible user interfaces indeed is upon us,” explains the team in a blog post. “And if the passion of this research can be as inspiring in the outside world, then we may indeed be at a turning point in the realization of natural interactions with computers that lead to the next era of how we think of – or don’t think of – computers when we are using them to create, learn, play and build.”

Read the team’s research paper in full over at Microsoft.


Simon is a Brooklyn-based industrial designer and Managing Editor of EVD Media. When he finds the time to design, his focus is on helping startups develop branding and design solutions to realize their product design vision. In addition to his work at Nike and various other clients, he is the main reason anything gets done at EvD Media. He once wrestled an Alaskan alligator buzzard to the ground with his bare hands… to rescue Josh.