Shifting Sands and Turning Tides: Using 3D Visualization Technology to Shape the Environment for Undergraduate Students

Friday, 19 December 2014
Hillary S Jenkins1, Rus Gant2 and David Hopkins2, (1)University of Redlands, Redlands, CA, United States, (2)Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, United States
Teaching natural science in a technologically advancing world requires that our methods reach beyond the traditional computer interface. Innovative 3D visualization techniques and real-time augmented user interfaces enable students to create realistic environments to understand the world around them. Here, we present a series of laboratory activities that utilize an Augmented Reality Sandbox to teach basic concepts of hydrology, geology, and geography to undergraduates at Harvard University and the University of Redlands.

The Augmented Reality (AR) Sandbox utilizes a real sandbox that is overlain by a digital projection of topography and a color elevation map. A Microsoft Kinect 3D camera feeds altimetry data into a software program that maps this information onto the sand surface using a digital projector. Students can then manipulate the sand and observe as the Sandbox augments their manipulations with projections of contour lines, an elevation color map, and a simulation of water. The idea for the AR Sandbox was conceived at MIT by the Tangible Media Group in 2002 and the simulation software used here was written and developed by Dr. Oliver Kreylos of the University of California – Davis as part of the NSF funded LakeViz3D project. Between 2013 and 2014, we installed AR Sandboxes at Harvard and the University of Redlands, respectively, and developed laboratory exercises to teach flooding hazard, erosion and watershed development in undergraduate earth and environmental science courses.

In 2013, we introduced a series of AR Sandbox laboratories in Introductory Geology, Hydrology, and Natural Disasters courses. We found laboratories that utilized the AR Sandbox at both universities allowed students to become quickly immersed in the learning process, enabling a more intuitive understanding of the processes that govern the natural world. The physical interface of the AR Sandbox reduces barriers to learning, can be used to rapidly illustrate basic concepts of geology, geography and hydrology, and enabled our undergraduate students to understand topography intuitively. We therefore find the AR Sandbox to be a novel teaching tool and an effective demonstration of the capabilities of 3D visualization and real-time augmented user interfaces that enable students to better understand environmental processes.