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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 1:20 EDT
Augmented Reality Sandbox Image 18
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Augmented Reality Sandbox (Image 18)

February 20, 2014
The "Shaping Watersheds Interactive Sandbox" in the Action Lab at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vt., encourages visitors of all ages to dig in and explore with their hands, forming mountains, lakes and rivers while a 3-D camera and digital projector allow them to create virtual topography in real time. The augmented reality (AR) exhibit encourages collaboration between strangers, prompting groups to work together to build mega-mountains with all the sand or to see if they can flood the entire landscape and create an island chain. The AR sandbox was created by the University of California, Davis', Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) and the UC-Davis W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES) as part of the National Science Foundation-supported LakeViz3D project in which researchers create 3-D visualization applications to teach Earth science concepts. Partnering institutions include UC-Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science and the ECHO Center. The LakeViz3D project seeks to raise public awareness and increase understanding and stewardship of freshwater lake ecosystems and Earth science processes using immersive, 3-D visualizations of lake and watershed processes, supplemented by tabletop science activity stations that can be used, for example, in science centers and museums. Among the activities developed by LakeViz3D is the "Shaping Watersheds Interactive Sandbox," a hands-on exhibit that combines a real sandbox with virtual topography and water, created using a closed loop of a Microsoft Kinect 3-D camera, powerful simulation and visualization software, and a data projector. Users create topography models by shaping real sand, which is then augmented in real time by an elevation color map, topographic contour lines and simulated water. The system teaches geographic, geologic and hydrologic concepts such as how to read a topography map, and the meaning of contour lines, watersheds, catchment areas, levees, etc. In May 2013, the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center was the first science center to create and share a publicly accessible version of the AR sandbox. "Its a teaching tool for all ages," said UC-Davis TERC director Geoffrey Schladow. "Usually, when you talk to kids about topography or what a contour line means, theyre asleep in 30 seconds. With this exhibit, theyre playing around, seeing the topographic map and watching how water flows downhill and where it goes. It becomes a game, and theyve done it without really knowing theyve learned something." The sandbox was created by a UC-Davis team, led by KeckCAVES associate research scientist Oliver Kreylos, after being inspired by a video created by a group of Czech researchers who demonstrated in 2011, a prototype of an AR sandbox that used color mapping and a limited form of fluid flow. The team took the basic idea of capturing a sand surface with a 3-D camera and projecting a colored image depicting elevation back onto the sand, then added a realistic water simulation and elevation contour lines to make the sandbox look more like a printed topographic map. (Date of Image: 2013) Credit: ©Julie Silverman/ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center