Using the Sandbox

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The Augmented Reality Sandbox

"An amazing resource!" : The Augmented Reality Sandbox uses colour and interpolated line drawing to model landscape - as on a topographic map. Further functions allow you to model the effects of rain, showing flood and water flow impact on the model topology.

The sandbox uses a virtual reality engine (VRUI) in combination with a computer projector and a motion sensing input device (a Microsoft Kinect 3D camera) mounted above a box of sand. When you shape the sand in the sandbox, the Kinect detects the distance to the sand below, and a visualization of an elevation model with contour lines and a colour map assigned by elevation is cast from an overhead projector onto the surface of the sand. Move the sand, and the Kinect perceives changes in the distance to the sand surface, and the projected colours and contour lines change accordingly. The River Wey Trust sandbox also provides a number of alternative effects so you can build volcanoes, understand why canal locks are needed and how they work, or look at the impact of different land use on the management of flood or water flows.

The majority of sandboxes built have used Dr Kreylos' model, which he has released as open source software. The software is supported by an online forum hosted by UCDavis, and enhancements or additions to the functions of the sandbox are found there. Some companies have taken advantage and released commercial versions, but the majority are built and supported by enthusiasts who contribute back to the project.

NEXT: How the AR Sandbox was Developed

How the AR Sandbox was Developed

The development of the AR Sandbox is largely the work of Dr Olver Kreylos, developed at the Keck Center for Active Visualization in Earth Science at the University of California (UC), Davis. This project was originally inspired by the “Sandy Station,” developed by researchers working in the Czech Republic.

The AR Sandbox prototype became an interactive public exhibit for science education as part of a multi-disciplinary National Science Foundation (NSF)–funded project called LakeViz3D. This collaboration of scientists, science educators, evaluators, museum professionals, and media developers created 3-D visualizations to help improve public understanding and stewardship of freshwater ecosystems. The first four AR Sandboxes were built at the science centre partners of LakeViz3D: KeckCAVES; the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California.; Tahoe Environmental Research Center in Incline Village, Nevada; and Ecology, Culture, History, and Opportunities (ECHO), Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.

The software that produces the visualization is created using an open-source virtual reality development toolkit for 3-D graphics applications (VRUI) also developed at KeckCAVES. The flow visualization is based on the Saint-Venant shallow-water equations, a depth-integrated version of the Navier-Stokes fluid flow equations [Kurganov and Petrova, 2007].

Dr Kreylos released the code as open source in 2015 approx, and since then a number of sandboxes have been built following his model and instructions. The sandbox is supported by an active user forum hosted by UC Davis, where updates and code contributions can be found. The River Wey Trust is an active supporter of the forum.

NEXT: How the Sandbox can be used

How the Sandbox can be used

Originally conceived to provide an interactive topology model, the sandbox can be used at various levels of learning and to support different aspects of STEM education. Based on sound principles, the fluid flows and colour effects are managed through configuration files, giving scope to adjust to meet whatever purpose is needed. Students at the University of Iowa have adapted their model to look at gravity, others use the options available on some builds to demonstrate simple volcanic activitiy. Perhaps worryingly, one version can be found on YouTube where the US army has used a model for battlefield planning!

The U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory reports that “The sandbox is a mesmerizing story-telling device.” They use the sandbox to explore, with visitors, how composite volcanoes like Mount St. Helens are built, what happened during the 1980 eruption, and how lahars can travel far downstream from a volcano. (A River Wey Trust Lesson plan uses Mt St Helens as an example for topgraphic study. )

AR Sandboxes have been used to teach university-level students about topographic maps, hydrology, and geomorphology. At UC Davis, students in upper-division structural geology courses use the AR Sandbox to visualize subsurface structures before they go out into the field.
The AR Sandbox helps students in physical geology laboratories interpret contour lines and visualize the 3-D landscape depicted as lines on a topographic map — concepts that students find challenging. Students model, predict, and then explore whether water can move naturally on the surface from one drainage basin to an adjacent basin.

In the UK there are some 25 registered AR Sandboxes. The majority are 'fixed' exhibits. Two portable versions are available as part of fully supported outreach programmes - The River Wey Trust based in Hampshire, and the JBA Trust based in Skipton, Yorkshire.

The River Wey Trust

The River Wey Trust's outings in 2020 were of course effectivley eliminated, but the range of activities we did manage is perhaps an indication of the scope of the model:

One trip in January to an alternative school in Bramley which was great fun, then one day in an artist's studio in Walthamstow with Beth Kettel who was doing a piece on movement (certainly a different use of the sandbox! - https://bethkettel.co.uk/Baseline-Drift-51-34-59-7N-0-00-49-2W if you want to see the outcome).  That was followed by two days in the Museum of London for February half term which was hectic with full days of a constant stream of folk. 
Then nothing until the end of November, spending a day in the Royal Institution filming one of their Christmas Lectures, "Planet Earth: A User’s Guide”  for broadcast on BBC4 … The sandbox makes an appearance in the second lecture, broadcast on 29th December, and now available on iPlayer and the RI YouTube channel (https://www.rigb.org/christmas-lectures/2020-planet-earth-a-users-guide )
2021 has seen a slow start; we've been to the Groundswell Regenerative Agriculture event, several schools and local events... and a very unusual installation for the Green Man Festival

JBA Trust

Details of the AR Sandbox and other demonstration models used by the JBA Trust are here.

We work with schools to highlight the fantastic opportunities of studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects and the many interesting and varied careers that STEM can lead to.

Activities include using our demonstration physical models help us to explain the concepts of flood and coastal risk management.  These concepts are particularly relevant to the GCSE and A-Level Geography curriculum.

STEM Learning shows the AR Sandbox available as a resource supported by STEM Ambassadors for STEM Clubs, Hands-on Practical, Interactive Sessions, or as part of an Event or Exhibition.

There are a number of lesson plans available for the River Wey Trust on our website at riverweytrust.org.uk covering age groups from 6 to 18 across the Key Stages.
Using the AR Sandbox as a 3D topography map supports learning for outdoor activities and map reading - used to illustrate the skills needed and outlined by the Ordnance Survey

JBA Trust learning resources for and other environmental education charities are available here

Further eduction and event or exhibition uses show that the sandbox engages across a wide range of ages and interests, including environmental planning, water company landscape examples, and - for special needs schools - a range of options to use the model for sensory feedback.

NEXT: Social Media

Social Media

River Wey Trust

UC Davis




A further YouTube Playlist of Sandboxes




NEXT: The Augmented Reality Sandbox

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NEXT: The Augmented Reality Sandbox



Groundswell Conference

The Groundswell event provides a forum for farmers and anyone interested in food production or the environment to learn about the theory and practical applications of Conservation Agriculture or regenerative systems, including no-till, cover crops and re-introducing livestock into the arable rotation, with a view to improving soil health..

Special Schools

Alternative Schools

In Arthur Conan Doyle's attic

Located in 'Undershaw' - Conan Doyle's home, Stepping Stones at Hindhead is a school offering a unique environment for the student who finds a mainstream school too challenging, and find the curriculum and peer group offered by a fully fledged special school too narrow or limiting. A day with the AR Sandbox provided learing and sensory input.

On the TV

Sandbox on the BBC Logo

Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2020

Started by Michael Faraday in 1825, and now broadcast on national television every year, the CHRISTMAS LECTURES are the UK's flagship science series. The RWT Sandbox was used in Lecture two of the 2020 season, supporting Helen Czerski's 'Water World' session.



Mapping the Thames

The Museum of London ran a half-term programme looking at the River Thames with the Sandbox in use at both Canary Wharf and London Wall venues.


School Trips

National Trust Dapdune Wharf

As one element of trips to the National Trust's unusual Godalming and Wey Navigations extended property, school visits often use the Sandbox to learn about rivers and canals.


Festivals and Events

Green Man Festival 2021

An unusual (and unusually LARGE!) installation supporting Beth Kettel's "A Mutual Influence" in a field with a shaped second screen over 30 metres away...
Picture © Anna Arca 2021

... places we get to ...

Aldershot Military Museum

Unusual Places

Aldershot Military Museum    August 2019

The Museum had a project display covering the Basingstoke Canal, and requested the RWT Sandbox to support part of that piece. The location was a touch unusual - squeezed between a filed gun from WW2 and a horse drawn supply cart from the late 19th century.


Rivers in Schools

Edgeborough School    November 2019

A day of working with rivers and volcanoes at Edgeborough, supporting the geography classes as they examined these topics and had some fun in the process.



Alternative uses for the model   

The RWT model has a number of 'added features' including several sets of alternative effects representing lava, snow, and pollutants. With varying physical flow characteristics, these effects coupled with controls to change 'sea level' in the model allow a range of topics and techniques to be used at different levels of study.

In class

School Takeover

a classroom in use ...

Bringing the sandbox into schools as a part of their lessons is always fun. Teachers are able to integrate the model with their lessons, but also make the learning process (and remembering!) much more fun

Events with an AR Sandbox

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