Presenting the AR Sandtable at MakerFaire Atlanta

Using rice and computing to learn about topography

An augmented reality sandtable is a playful technology for introducing kids to concepts of topo maps and fluid dynamics.  It’s also ridiculously fun!  Thanks to the time and effort of makers from SparkMacon makerspace, our team built our own implementation of the AR sandtable and showcased it at Atlanta Makerfaire 2015.  We had an amazing time building it and sharing it with families across Atlanta.

So… what does it look like?  Here’s a few videos.

The original AR sandbox was created through collaborative research of the following organizations.

  • UC Davis’ W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES)
  • UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center
  • Lawrence Hall of Science
  • ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center

In Sept of 2013, my family got to see a similar augmented reality exhibit at the Boston Science Museum.  My kids spent hours at this exhibit and loved the experience.  You can check out our post here about MIT’s Tangible Media lab work.   From a technology perspective, the sandbox is filled with rice or sand enabling the kids to build mountains, lakes, rivers, and castles.   A projector positioned above the sandbox renders a colorized map featuring topo map lines based on the height of the sand.   Next to the projector, a XBox 360 Kinect senses the height and depth of the sand or rice.   It has always been a dream to present at a MakerFaire and build this project.  It was great to see this dream come true with my friends from SparkMacon.  It was a wonderful community building experience for our members too.   

My son’s favorite feature of the sandbox is the water simulation.  By hovering your hand over a spot, the software executes a “rain” feature under your hand.   The simulated water obeys the laws of physics that you would expect as water flows down the side of a mountain.   The total experience feels like a dynamic piece of art.  The experience was well received at MakerFaire.   Our makers were awarded a “Maker of Merit” badge for our exhibit by MakerFaire.   I know that our team enjoyed answering questions on how we built the structure, how it works, playing in the sandbox, and talking about how we might extend the work.    

This experience would not be possible without our family of makers.  

  • Garrett Armstrong – We had a few challenges early in development getting Linux installed on our workstation.  I appreciate the hours of time Garrett spent debugging our hardware setup and getting the NVidia video card working.
  • Robert Betzel – Thank you for being our master carpenter on this build.   His table size enabled a good number of families to enjoy the sandbox at one time.   It was also modular so that it was easy to setup and teardown!  We also want to thank Infinity Network Solutions who funded this build.
  • Stephen Finney, Glen Stone, Robert Reese, Nadia Osman, Brent Lanford  – Thanks for all the support in setting up the software, helping to build the system, and volunteering to present it at Atlanta MakerFaire.
  • I also want to give a special shout out to Garrett Sisk from Marion Systems.  He did a great job telling the story of the impact of 3D printing and the ways it can help people.   We’re thankful for his time and support.   We love his product in our makerspace.  Interested in purchasing a quality 3D printer for your makerspace or educational institution?  Make sure to check out   

From a software perspective, the AR sandbox is built with a few open source C++ frameworks on a modern Linux platform.

  • Vrui VR Toolkit (GNU license)
  • Kinect 3D video processing framework(GNU license)

UC Davis has posted very complete project instructions, open source tools and background at the following link:

All in all, we had an amazing time at Atlanta Makerfaire 2015.   I have posted some links, videos, and pictures below.   If you’re interested in seeing the AR sandbox and other amazing maker projects in Macon, GA, make sure to save the date for Make-End!!

Learn more .

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