Augmented Reality Sandbox Shaping Watersheds

AR Sandbox uses a computer projector and a motion-sensing input device (a Kinect 3D camera) mounted above a box of sand. The visitor interacts with the exhibit by shaping the sand. The Kinect detects the distance to the sand below, and a visualization an elevation model with contour lines and a color map assigned by elevation is cast from an overhead projector onto the surface of the sand.

As visitors move the sand, the Kinect perceives changes in the distance to the sand surface, and the projected colors and contour lines change accordingly.

topographic map of a connected landscape
topographic map features of mountain

When an object (for example, a hand) is sensed at a particular height above the surface of the sand, virtual rain appears as a blue, shimmering visualization on the surface below.

The water appears to flow down the slopes to lower surfaces. The water flow simulation is based on real models of fluid dynamics (a depth integrated version of the NavierStokes equations).

Visitors can press and hold the green button to remove (“evaporate”, “drain”) the virtual water.

hand over topographical map demonstrating projection
topographical map features of river
Where does the water flow?

This exhibit design uses a concept known as “tangible computing” in which objects in the physical world can be manipulated to alter or operate a computer program, in this case a visualization of a landscape. The camera in the bonnet of the exhibit is a Microsoft Kinect camera, the same camera used in video games. It uses an infrared projector, camera and special microchip to track the movement of objects in 3D.

Educational Resources

Demonstration Videos

In the News

“Virtual sandbox offers UA students a unique experience,” The Crimson White, September 9, 2016

“Augmented reality sandbox on UA’s campus helps educate public about hydrological processes,” ABC3340 News, August 26, 2016


NSFlogoThis AR Sandbox was built by the Surface Dynamics Modeling Lab with support from the National Science Foundation (Award Number: 1561082). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

For more information contact Dr. Sagy Cohen:

Oliver Kreylos, a computer scientist studying 3D scientific visualizations and computational geosciences at UC Davis, designed and programmed the AR sandbox software. It was then further developed and designed by a LakeViz3D project team.

More Information

See the designer’s webpages for more technical information: