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This Trippy Augmented Reality Sandbox Lets You Move Mountains and Make it Rain

Relive the thrill of playing God as a child while learning about topography.
July 29, 2015, 9:00am

Topographical maps are designed to quickly impart elevation data through contour lines, and while they are useful for a variety of pursuits from surveying to hiking, they can be difficult to visualize in the real world. Now, with an augmented reality sandbox developed by researchers at UC Davis and UCLA, you can model lifelike landscapes that achieve a new level of realism and interactivity.

Using an Xbox Kinect sensor, a projector and open source software, as well as a regular sandbox, users can sculpt the sand to create mountains, valleys, rivers and even erupting volcanoes that are projected down onto the sand in front of them. Users can hold their hands above the sandbox to simulate rainclouds as animated water follows the path of least resistance, giving undergraduate students an understanding of how erosion can affect a landscape over time.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox was first developed at UC Davis, then refined for topographic applications by Gary Glesener, director of UCLA's Modeling and Educational Demonstrations Laboratory, a department aiming to provide practical teaching resources for undergraduate science courses.

Glesener hopes that the tactile experience of manipulating virtual landscapes will give students the ability to visualize topographies in the field, when they don't have access to the sandbox.

The ability to move mountains with your bare hands might be a clichéd fantasy, but it's more likely the rain-making feature that has California students and faculty daydreaming.