Virtual Reality Sandbox

From the November 2016 Desktop News The newest interactive exhibit at the Alabama Museum of Natural History  is part sandbox, part Xbox, and it’s teaching students of all ages about topography, flood hazards, and watersheds.

“With Google maps and other applications, people aren’t used to reading paper maps anymore,” Dr. Sagy Cohen, a professor in the Department of Geography, said. “But in my field—and even for people who like hiking or hunting—reading topographical maps is still a very important skill.”

Dr. Sagy Cohen doing a demonstration in the sandbox.
Dr. Sagy Cohen doing a demonstration in the sandbox.

A typical topographic map uses concentric circles to reflect three-dimensional terrain: When the circles are close to one another that means the elevation of the area is steeper, and when the circles are more spread out, that signifies that the area is flat. Still, elevation and other topographical structures aren’t always easy to visualize on a two-dimensional map—especially for those not used to reading them.

To help, this sandbox—formally known as an augmented reality sandbox—allows participants to create peaks, valleys, plateaus, and hills in the sand, and then the Xbox Kinect system reads the topography and, using software developed by scientists at the University of California-Davis, it then projects an accurate topographical map over the 3D surface. Essentially it superimposes the two-dimensional representation of the topography directly over the land itself, so viewers can see how the two relate.

In addition to the topographical aspect of the exhibit, the sandbox also demonstrates fluid dynamics and hydraulics. Participants can create virtual rain by holding their hand over their “sandscapes,” and as the rain falls, they will see where it naturally pools, creating watersheds like rivers, lakes, and dams. By adding extra rain, they can also visualize the dangers of living in a flood plain—seeing rivers and lakes overflow to fill previously dry areas.

This virtual reality sandbox is on display at Smith Hall as a part of the Natural History Museum.

“Kids react really well to the equipment,” Cohen said. “I’m not used to hearing kids say ‘this is really cool’ in response to environmental science, but this is competing with the dinosaurs upstairs. In fact, one family told me that over the summer they came here every day because their 5-year-old daughter insisted on coming to play in the sandbox. It’s something kids may remember when they graduate high school and start picking their majors.”

Cohen organized the project for the educational outreach portion of a larger grant he received from the National Science Foundation in July to study sediment movement in large rivers. He emphasized the importance of educating people about flood hazards—especially considering recent flood events in Louisiana—and he says that a large portion of his research is dedicated to this topic.

A sand mound with a topographical map projected on top of it.

In fact, his surface dynamics modeling lab also recently received a grant from the National Water Center to create maps of flood events that have occurred in the United States over the last 20 years.

“The National Water Center is developing a national flood prediction system that is going to revolutionize the way that floods are predicted in this country,” Cohen said. “They are going to have street-level predictions of floods—and our team is creating the maps that will help calibrate their models.”

He says that though the technology is more sophisticated, the idea behind the new models is similar to the sand box model.