Microsoft’s experimental projection pod can turn any surface into an interactive D&D board

Manipulating the view inside the controlled confines of a virtual reality headset is a lot easier than dealing with the real-world logistics of bringing an entire room to life, but there’s still a good number of years to go until there are enough units around to bring that to bear. The leaves a rather large window that Microsoft may now be trying to exploit.

Buried in the latest pile of patent filings unloaded in its section of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s online database is an application for a projection pod that can apparently turn almost any surface into an interactive display. That means you won’t only be able to set up a fully animated game board with a few clicks but also sync your tabletop with players halfway around the world.

The trick, shown above in Microsoft’s sad attempt at drawing a starfighter, is a 12-bit code projected onto identical game pieces to help make the necessary distinctions. A built-in shadow analysis algorithm then figures out what each is doing, i.e. if a piece is being moved, and corrects for the obstruction from your hand before the change is transmitted back to the machine running the game. That’s a major refinement of the company’s RoomAlive project that eliminates the need to hang half a dozen projectors on the ceiling just produce the virtual overlay. Instead, the patent uses a single unit with aspheric lens, which can display content on surfaces from very close up. The specific range was two and a half inches in the proof-of-concept that inspired the patent filing, which looked something like this:

That monstrosity is not exactly something that could fit in your average living room, especially when you take into account that the pod also includes a camera and an infrared illuminator to handle object detection. But consider that the specific projector used for the trial came out in 2003, an eternity in the technology world. It took less than that to transition from the brick phones that gave a generation of office drones radiation poisoning to the iPhone.

If Microsoft manages the distinctly non-Herculean feat of shrinking its pod into a compact formfactor that could actually fit on a table or a sofa, the concept could potentially contribute a great deal to bringing augmented reality closer to mainstream acceptance. After all, board games are only the beginning of the potential applications for such a technology.