Inventive sandbox gives geology students enhanced perspective

Matt Moss

Staff Writer

Photo by Zonghui Li | The Prospectus Associate Professor Juile Angel is describing the Augmented Reality Sandbox in L217 on Friday, Feb 12, 2015. This new technology can help Parkland students to know more about the change of landform.

Photo by Zonghui Li | The Prospectus
Associate Professor Juile Angel is describing the Augmented Reality Sandbox in L217 on Friday, Feb 12, 2015. This new technology can help Parkland students to know more about the change of landform.

Two-dimensional becomes three-dimensional with Parkland natural sciences’ Augmented Reality Sandbox, providing students with a tangible—and moldable—representation of geographical figures that would normally appear only on paper or a computer screen.

Using the sandbox, students can create miniature canyons, mountains, islands, and so on. A sensor then measures the height of the faux landscape in the bed below, and sends that information to its onboard computer.

A projector then casts an elevation map upon the sand. The result is a colorful display that creates a three-dimensional representation of the two-dimensional land and water elevation maps one would find in an atlas.

The sandbox is dynamic; as the sand is changed by students, the projected elevation map changes with it automatically.

The sandbox sits in L-217, where geology instructor Julie Angel teaches. She says it is a useful tool in presenting elevation and elevation change, giving students a new perspective on two-dimensional elevation maps.

“When you have a topographic map, it is a flat, two-dimensional map that…has…contour lines,” Angel said. “Those contour lines help us understand how the land rises and falls…as a beginner, to look at those maps and try to…see the third dimension that those lines are trying to show us is really difficult.”

The sandbox not only gives students an enhanced perspective on elevation maps, but allows them to actively modify—build up or erode—a landscape. They are able to mimic the forces of nature, which change the face of the earth over eons, in mere seconds, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox is a novel application of existing technology. Its fundamental components are a bed of sand, a standard desktop computer with a high-grade graphics card, and a projector coupled with a Microsoft Xbox 360 motion sensor and mounted above.

The sandbox makes use of a computer unit that Parkland had on hand, meaning the only addition necessary to it was the advanced graphics card required to handle the extremely demanding software. The projector is also ordinary, like the kind familiar to most every Parkland student.

The sand is a unique type, which lends itself to being more malleable or packable than regular sand like the kind you would find on a beach or a typical recreational sandbox. Introduce a bit of water, and the sand becomes comparable to the wet snow.

The software used is open source—available for free on the Internet. It includes powerful physics equations in its coding, allowing for complex functions like calculating digital water to flow down a physical sand structure in real time.

The entire unit, fashioned from wood and about the height of a man-and-a-half, is mobile and can be wheeled around through elbow grease alone. The sand bed itself is around navel-height on the average person.

Unfortunately, the projector mounting stands mere inches too tall, and the sand bed mere inches too wide, to fit through the typical Parkland classroom door. This means the projector mounting must be detached, and the bed must be emptied and dismantled—or the room’s door must be removed from its frame—for the sandbox to be moved from classroom to classroom.

According to Digital Trends, the concept was devised in conjunction between the University of California Los Angeles and the University of California Davis. At the time of their report, UCLA was the only educational institution with the technology available to its students.

Since then, the idea has exploded around the world. Angel states that numerous educational institutions now have their own units.

The layout of the sandbox at Parkland is almost identical to the one designed in California, complete with the same technology, down to the Xbox 360 Kinect motion sensor.

The sandbox was built on-campus by a consortium of Parkland institutions, namely natural sciences, campus technologies, and the physical plant.

“Several individuals within those departments were very, very excited about the possibility of having this technology here,” Angel said. “They donated their time because they were very interested in getting this going.”

The software for the sandbox still requires some fine-tuning, being prone to slightly miscalculating the height of the sand and the precise locations of the highest and lowest elevations on the sand terrain.

“Like any new software…it goes through several generations of refinement and improvement,” Angel said. “It will improve.”

Despite its kinks which should be worked out in the near future, the sandbox is functional and useful tool for geography students.

“We are incredibly grateful for all the people that came together to make this a reality,” Angel said. “It’s going to improve the experience for students in a lot of different topics that we talk about.”