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Augmented Reality Sandbox Provides A New Way To Learn About Science

For those of us who played with Moon Sand back as children, it’s a good day — Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences decided to take the childhood toy to a new level.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox was introduced recently as an exhibit in the Earth Mineral Science Museum’s spring 2016 collection. At first glance, passersby often mistake the exhibit as simply a large box filled with some funky, rainbow-colored substance. But, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye — the display provides students with their own personal lesson on the inner-workings of topographical maps.

“The mission was to build a modern interactive exhibit that is both entertaining and educational,” said Ken Mankoff, a research associate in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences.

The exhibit works to detect the composition of the sand surface before visually transferring the information to the surface itself.  “It works by use of a 3D camera that senses the sand surface from above, and the cameras are actually an Xbox Kinect,” Mankoff explained. “By default, it shows the elevation contours, which are represented as lines on the sand surface.”

People are often surprised to find the sandbox isn’t like normal museum exhibits — visitors are strongly encouraged to touch the sand and play around with the different ways the light projector shows movement. The sand’s thick and somewhat sticky substance allows visitors to mold it into a variety of shapes, specifically, different landscapes. When a student creates a landscape (examples could include a lake, valley, mountain, or other landscape often found across the planet), the projector will shine a light that appears to change the color of the sand. The new color depends on the type of landscape created. For example, when a student uses their hands to dig a lake, the projector will shine a blue light onto that spot.

Visitors don’t even have to touch the sand itself to get their own personal lesson in hydrology. “When you stick your hand in front of the projector, it creates the image of rain falling right in front of you,” Mankoff said.

Contrary to the rules of most museums, visitors are encouraged to touch the sand in the Augmented Reality Sandbox to learn more about how topographical maps work.

The sandbox is arguably one of the most unique and innovative exhibits in the museum. However, Mankoff realizes there is always room for improvement.

“I have all these ideas on how to expand it,” he said. One of these ideas includes adding the activity of the earth’s glaciers to the exhibit.

He also hopes to introduce the exhibit to a wider audience. There always seems to be someone there checking it out, Mankoff explained, but larger group visits and even class lessons would be ideal. Since people are always free to use the sandbox and there is no formal sign up required, he hopes the simplicity of visiting the exhibit will attract more numbers in the future.

“The goal is to have it used not just as a source of entertainment but also as a part of formal class,” he said.

Mankoff plans to create a module specifically designed to track the sandbox’s popularity. The module would track each minute of hand use so that he can see exactly when people are visiting it.

Though Mankoff played a key role in using his own hydrology research to bring the sandbox exhibit to Penn State, he’s not the first one to have the idea. Originating from Eastern Europe, this type of sandbox is actually a popular scientific artifact that is used for research in various countries.

“These things actually exist now in multiple museums around the world, so we wanted to bring one here as well,” Mankoff said.

Installation of the exhibit was funded by Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and further initiated by Russ Graham, Director for the Earth Mineral Science Museum and Art Gallery. The sandbox is open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in room 16 of the Deike Building for those who want to check it out (and, of course, revisit their childhood).

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About the Author

Claire Fountas

Claire Fountas is the student life editor for Onward State, as well as a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and psychology. She lives in a suburb of Chicago and strongly disagrees with anyone who hates the Cubs or the Blackhawks (so, pretty much anyone at Penn State). You can follow her @ClaireFountas or email her at [email protected]

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