Today@Sam Article

Geology Professor Builds Augmented Reality Sandbox Through STEM Grant

Nov. 30, 2021
SHSU Media Contact: Wes Hamilton

Student demonstrating how the sandbox topography worksBy Mikah Boyd

Students in the Department of Environmental and Geosciences can see changes in topography in a new way thanks to the efforts of one professor and the support he received from the department.

Associate professor Joseph Hill received a STEM grant to build an augmented reality sandbox to be used in the classroom to give students a hands-on approach to geology. The sandbox serves as a 3D visualization tool and uses a Kinect radar camera to measure the 3-dimensional surface of the sand in the box. The software built into the system then takes the signal, processes it, and projects topography back onto the sand. This 3D sandbox can help students in a wide range of classes, including introductory physical geology courses, geologic hazards courses, physical geography, and geomorphology. Hill explained how the sandbox’s versatility can help better students’ comprehension.

“It is easier for students to understand concepts like topography, isopach contouring, watersheds, and floodplains when they are presented in 3D,” Hill said. “Moreover, the AR Sandbox is dynamic. The students can physically change the landscape in the sandbox environment, and the projection will change in real time. For example, mountains can be built, or stream channels carved or moved, and the simulation will react in real time to reflect the changes. Students really get engrossed in the simulation.”

Hill and others within the department tossed around the idea of getting an AR sandbox in the past, but the price tag stood in their way. To remedy this, Hill investigated constructing one himself and found that with a STEM grant he would be able to get all the materials that he needed. After receiving the grant, Hill had to relearn the proper programming for the sandbox and faced other snags along the way.

Sandbox demonstration

Despite the challenges of relearning the programming, Hill was able to work with teaching assistants over the summer to build the sandbox so that it can now be used in class and lab work.

“This project was actually completed with the help of multiple students from our department,” Hill said. “They got to experience the project from conception to completion. They had to work out the technical details and problem solve to work out all the bugs in the system. The students gained a lot of practical experience, they contributed to the departmental mission, and ended up with a piece of really cool equipment that will be used to benefit other students.”

Hill said the next development for the project is to add a software update that can simulate a volcanic eruption. After this, he and his team are eyeing the possibility of modeling sediment transport and deposition. Hill emphasized how the sandbox itself and the various things it can simulate are impactful to all.

“We live in a world that is increasingly dominated by technology,” Hill said. “Technology is sometimes beneficial and sometimes harmful – even in an educational setting. Using technology for our benefit and finding new and novel ways to educate our young people is a major part of the fundamental mission of any university.”


Follow the Department of Environmental and Geosciences on social media @SHSUgeo for more interesting developments and demonstrations like the one below from Hill in his lab. 

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