Students Get Their Hands Dirty With New Augmented Reality Sandbox

Allegheny senior Kristy Garcia rolled up her sleeves and dug right into the sandbox, piling up clean, white sand to form a mountain.

Senior David Olson joined in as well, using his fingers to dig a trench at the base of the mountain.

As they watched the colors change from deep reds and oranges to bright greens to blues, they braced themselves for the fun part – placing their hand over the camera overlooking the sandbox to “make it rain.”

“That is so cool!” the wide-eyed environmental science majors said in unison as virtual rain washed over the mountain and sloshed into the trench.

It’s a common reaction when someone first sees Allegheny’s newest piece of technology, the augmented reality (AR) sandbox, in the basement of Alden Hall.

The AR sandbox, which arrived at Allegheny in January, combines the playfulness of a child’s sandbox with advanced technology to create a learning tool that can be used by students of all ages. When students shape the sand, a Microsoft Kinect 3-D camera and a projector with powerful software detect the movement and display a three-dimensional topographic and colored elevation map in real time.

According to Sam Reese, lab technician for the geology and environmental science departments, unlike street maps, topographic maps display 3-D characteristics of an area using lines, called contours, to represent elevation above or below sea level. Using topographic maps, engineers know where best to build a road, scientists know where rainwater will flow after a storm and hikers know where a trail is steepest.

“By using this technology, students can actually see how a topographic map portrays a 3-D world. Sometimes people don’t grasp that concept on a flat 2-D map,” Reese says. “The beauty of the sandbox is the simplicity of the model, as it tells a very complicated story.”

Reese explains that the College acquired the materials to construct the sandbox through a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Allegheny carpenters built the actual box, and Craig Newell Welding in Cambridge Springs, Pa., built the metal apparatus that holds the camera and software in place. Dave Wagner, network and systems administrator in computer science and information technology services, set up the operating system and installed the software.

The idea for the AR sandbox came from a group of Czech researchers who posted a YouTube video displaying an early prototype that included elevation maps and a basic form of fluid movement, Reese says. A team at the W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCaves) at the University of California Davis then added the topographic contour lines and improved the simulated fluid flow to create the current prototype. UC Davis provides the blueprints to build the system as well as the necessary software free of charge on its website.

Reese estimates that only a couple dozen AR sandboxes exist, mainly at museums. “It’s so new. The day our sandbox went live – Jan. 21 – an article appeared in the New York Times about augmented reality,” he says. “It’s really cutting edge for Allegheny to have this.”

AR 4
Allegheny senior Kristy Garcia digs in the AR sandbox.

In addition to the geology and environmental science departments using the sandbox in labs and for independent research projects, the computer science and biology departments also plan to incorporate the technology into their class curricula.

College students won’t be the only ones digging in the sand. Creek Connections, a partnership between the College and K-12 schools that focuses on hands-on watershed education, plans to incorporate the AR sandbox in activities that explore topographic maps, watersheds and stream geology.

“People are used to street maps and Google maps that are very flat. But when we talk about watershed delineation and where rain will go, the concept becomes much easier when you can use a 3-D topographic map like this,” says Wendy Kedzierski, director of Creek Connections. “With the sandbox, you can see it as the sand builds up and the colors change. It makes the connection so much easier.”

Student Kristy Garcia, who works as a project assistant with Kedzierski and the Creek Connections program, agrees. “It’s definitely easier to understand topography when looking at the sandbox,” she says.

Kedzierski believes another benefit is that the sandbox will give students who prefer hands-on activities another opportunity for learning.

“The education that we provide in schools is a lot different from what they do every day in the classroom. Some of the children who have a hard time with traditional lecturing react differently when we do our Creek Connections activities,” Kedzierski says. “This is another tactile experience for those students.”

Reese believes that the AR sandbox is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hands-on education.

“I believe virtual reality is going to augment the augmented reality,” he says. “It will be interesting to see how the AR software upgrades will add more bells and whistles to the sandbox over the next year or two.”