Playing in the Augmented Reality Sandbox

Helene and Emma use the AR sandbox
Carnegie Microprobe Operator Emma Bullock and Staff Volcanologist Hélène Le Mével use a bucket and shovel to explore the demonstrational capabilities of the augmented reality sandbox. Photo credit: Cian Wilson
Tuesday, August 11, 2020 

If you’ve been to one of our in-person events, you may have gotten a chance to play with our augmented reality sandbox.

The AR sandbox is a nifty science communication tool we use to demonstrate some of the fundamental aspects of Earth science that happen here at the Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL). The sandbox allows anyone to build and visualize complex landscapes and how they interact with natural phenomena—like rain—in real-time. 

Building Landscapes with Equations

The sandbox was built by Carnegie Computational Scientist Cian Wilson and is based on the original design out of UC Davis. So how does it work? 

Wilson explains, “The catch is that a camera (Microsoft KINECT) is constantly scanning the surface of the sand, like the remote sensing satellites in orbit around the Earth used by Carnegie scientists.” 

The augmented reality sandbox uses a camera to scan the surface of the sand and build a topographic map, which it then projects back onto the sand in real-time. Photo credit: Cian Wilson

Wilson continues, “A computer processes that data and projects a topographic map of the surface back onto the sand. All of this happens in real-time, updating the map as the sand is moved. We use the computer to run a simulation of what water would do if it was poured onto the topography the camera is seeing.”

According to Wilson, the simulation is a lot like the models we use at EPL to study parts of the Earth that are inaccessible to us either because they're too deep, too hot, too big, or take too long. Explaining their similarity, Wilson stated, “We're using mathematical equations to mimic what the Earth (in this case the water) is doing and getting the computer to solve those equations.”

Virtual Demonstration

It’s unlikely that we’re going to get to show off the sandbox in real life anytime soon. But we hope you enjoy this video of Wilson putting the sandbox through its paces. 

Make your own AR Sandbox.