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Microsoft is Working on a Play Mat That Can Bring Physical Play to the Digital World

Parents, here’s your chance to be jealous of the toys kids today are getting! Yesterday, Microsoft revealed that they’re working on Project Zanzibar, a play mat that can work with physical toys, mapping playtime to a paired computer. If you’ve got a kid who is all-in on Minecraft, you’re going to want to read more!

The mat would use touch sensitivity and NFC technology — the short-range standard that enables payment apps like Apple Pay — to not only identify toys, but keep track of their movements on the mat. Kids could play with action figures or building blocks on the mat, with the scenes they’re creating generated on screen. They could then get a little more creative, adding backgrounds, music — there are a lot of possibilities! The only caveat would be that the mat would require specialized toys with embedded NFC technology, although it’s possible that tags could be applied to toys after the fact.

It’s a pretty neat concept! Kids could play with action figures, then create a movie based on the adventures they created. Or, they could build something using Lego bricks or other building blocks, then be able to play with it in Minecraft — Microsoft hasn’t said anything about Minecraft integration yet, but considering they now own the game, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t include it in this somehow! There are plenty of potential uses for education, too, especially for kids who tend to learn better by doing.

Project Zanzibar looks like the evolution of the toys-to-life genre of games that became really popular earlier this decade. Games like Infinite ArmsLego DimensionsSkylanders, and Disney Infinity involved physical figurines that could be scanned into their respective video games, unlocking new characters or abilities — a concept Nintendo is having some success with using their Amiibo figurines.

But, aside from Lego Dimensions, the toys-to-life figurines only interacted with the game by standing still on the scanner — physical play didn’t translate to digital play. That might be one reason why the shine has come off toys-to-life, with Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions since being discontinued and Skylanders stagnating. Project Zanzibar looks to revitalize the concept by actually transporting what kids do with their toys to the digital world, instead of just the toys themselves. Looks like a really fun idea, and we’re excited to see where goes!