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Waves of people crowded the display. Bright, colorful and intuitive, it invited the inquisitive minds to manipulate a standing box of artificial sand with little trowels. Aside from engaging the tactile senses, they were also subconsciously absorbing geologic concepts. 

As they built new hills and valleys, refreshed overlays of terrain illuminated and reconfigured, replacing the sand’s blank canvas with something seemingly alive. Where once there were exhumed holes and beige mounds, there were now lakes sloshing with water and vibrant colors highlighting red mountain peaks. 

Carol Edson, Las Positas College geology lab technician, first saw the high-tech sandbox at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, built low to the ground and surrounded by children. 

Even as an adult, Edson found the effect mesmerizing, like magic made real. It translated futurist writer Arthur C. Clarke’s philosophy, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, into the language of computer code, digital projectors and the movement of a hand. 

The truth is, this alchemy is all augmented perception— experimented, documented and continually iterated upon online. As the software renders the landscape in the augmented reality (AR) sandbox, the project itself paints a picture of the digital frontier, where the synthesis of analogue and digital technologies is contrasted with organic human drives of play and imagination.

And, it seems, not meant only for children.

William Kossow digs a lake in the AR sandbox\. (Photo by Timothy Czech/The Express)

UC Los Angeles has one, and so too does UC Santa Barbara. Using resources posted on UC Davis’ official project website, hundreds of AR sandboxes have been built throughout the United States and abroad. The future is attainable, and comes with instructions. 

Now, the future has been constructed at the Las Positas College geology lab.

In October 2018, a team of five LPC students and three faculty members completed a functional AR sandbox, a complement to geology department courses at Las Positas College, after 18 months of work. 

The finished AR sandbox superimposes real-time visualizations of topography, contour lines and flowing water onto low-dust particulate.

Full-time geology professor Ruth Hanna said, students “can build in three dimensions. As they build it is going to constantly update the map lines in real time. It’s color-coded, so it’s very visual, very interactive.” 

As a user interfaces with the AR sandbox with plastic utensils, pushing sand into mountains and carving channels for rivers, the system generates and projects terrestrial alterations. Water flows into divots, and color delineates the flat little world’s new elevations, all while the physical user plays digital god. There is also a mode enabling the hand as a substitute rain cloud and, as it hovers, digital cerulean rain pours into the superimposed transparency. 

“What we have found is it’s this thing that people want to touch,” Hanna said.

Mounted on an aluminum rail above the sandbox is a Kinect video game peripheral, which maps the sand, and a short throw digital projector, for casting the graphical imagery. A Linux-based computer runs open-source software developed at UC Davis and generates the geographic facsimile displayed on the sand.

“It’s tech wizardry, not pure magic,” Edson said.

On May 6, 2012, a video demonstrating an AR sandbox was posted to YouTube by Dr. Oliver Kreylos, and has since gone viral with over 2 million views. Kreylos, with UC Davis’ W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences, helped develop this project to bolster environmental science learning objectives. A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant funded the project. Upon its completion, both the software and detailed instructions on how to build one were provided free on Kreylos’ website to anyone motivated to build their own. 

One viewer of the “Augmented Reality Sandbox with Real-time Water Flow Simulation” YouTube video was LPC professor Hanna, and she wanted one.

“At the time you couldn’t just buy them. You had to build them,” Hanna said.

But she had little time to spearhead such a project. Having interacted with one already, geology lab technician Edson offered to get the LPC build on the ground running, and, with assistance from physics instructor Travis White and physics lab technician Andrew Lozano, recruited students from engineering club.

“Because we’re a two-year school, and this took almost two years to bring together, the number of students that started, contributed, and had to move on was half of the build team,” Edson said.

William Kossow is one of only three students, including Yosef Mirsky (now attending SJSU) and Ashley McDaniel (now attending UC Riverside), involved in the build from impetus to conclusion. The other two official members, Kyle Minchokovich and Zero Hanami, left LPC prior to completion. 

Still, there remain more unlisted members who helped along the way. “One of the very first students to help us but then ended up transferring too soon was Calvin Smith. He had seen this on the internet, and as an art major it spoke to him. We marry art and science,” Edson said.

The project required four separate grants, including an LPC Foundation Cycle Grant, to cover the Sandtastik artificial sand, the BenQ MW632ST projector, the woodworking material and the custom computer built by Kossow. The Kinect was donated.

On the market, a pre-built one costs $6,800 to $9,000 through companies like Topobox, but Edson and the team knew it could be done for much cheaper, without sacrificing any aesthetic value or performance hits.

“The whole system that these students built, we did for about $1900,” said Edson, “I told them, I won’t build with you. I will cheer you on, and I will get you all the money you need.”

LPC’s AR sandbox took a year and a half to construct and calibrate into the fully functioning tech toy it is today.

It isn’t without peculiar technical difficulties, and more work maintaining, troubleshooting and operating the device remains. It is known to operate strangely, always requiring a full system reboot in order to power up. Since powering down risks burning out the uninterrupted power supply, back-up power remains a challenge in the event of a school-wide power outage. Such surges have the potential to fry any of the three primary operating devices (between the projector, the computer and the Kinect), so Edson always has contingencies available. 

“It makes me feel pretty good that we have electrical protection, dual projectors, an extra hard drive (and) an old monitor at home,” she said.

The LPC build, as well as the AR Sandbox itself, exemplifies a remix mindset— an innovative game of leapfrog happening within the internet message board hive mind. True to a playground mentality, inquisitive minds continue to collaborate, dismantle and reconfigure these components, always building upon the iterative nature of the project.

Since the software is open-source, modifications are in development by developers, engineers and digital artists. Recently, University of Iowa physics and astronomy students were awarded an NSF grant to develop a model incorporating gravitational force, dubbed the “Gravbox.” Once completed, they intend to release the software free-to-use, just as Kreylos had for the sandbox.

Kossow is also imagining his own iteration of this technology. “I’m thinking about the equivalent of a drone that can map, but as a robot with wheels. Something that can map out rooms,” he said.

As with any colorfully advanced tech toys, almost indistinguishable from magic, the sandbox is another intersection on the path toward the next technological breakthrough, whatever that may resemble.

It only requires a curious mind to build on uncharted digital shores.

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