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‘Augmented Reality Sandbox’ Serves as Multidisciplinary Tool

A sandbox recently installed at Pennsylvania College of Technology is for anything but play. Thanks to the ingenuity of faculty and staff from the School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, the 250 pounds of sand will serve as an educational tool for hundreds of students in several majors.

The unit incorporates a 3-D camera, sensor, projector and computer to reveal virtual topographical contour lines, an elevation color map and simulated water on sand. When the sand is molded by hand, the virtual features change accordingly. The project is modeled after the AR Sandbox, developed by National Science Foundation-funded research at the University of California, Davis.

“It’s an application of augmented reality,” said Bradley M. Webb, assistant dean of industrial, computing and engineering technologies. “It lays computer-generated images over a real-world environment. In this case, the environment is sand. The concept is similar to the Pokémon Go game that was popular a few years ago.”

Unlike the Pokémon Go craze, Webb expects the AR Sandbox to have sustained popularity on campus. “We are talking about hundreds of students experiencing it every year,” he said. “We will be formalizing a process for classes to use it. I’m sure we haven’t thought of all possible uses for it.”

One student has already benefited from the AR Sandbox. Austin M. Adams, an information technology: network specialist concentration major from Center Valley, used the open-source software provided by UC Davis as a guide in programming the system to display a real-time dynamic topography map on the sand.

“When a difference is sensed, the software renders it, colors it and generates the new texture that is projected onto the sand,” he said.

Blue to dark blue denotes below sea level (water) and green represents sea level. As sand mounds are created, the colors range from yellow to red, depending on the elevation. Hand movements above the sand’s surface create blue rain clouds.

“I always look for extra projects in the field,” Adams said. “This project was a good way to expand my knowledge base and develop career-building skills.”

According to Webb, students enrolled in civil engineering and surveying, information technology, gaming and simulation, and geology classes will be among the next to experiment with the AR Sandbox, along with kids from the Robert & Maureen Dunham Children’s Learning Center.

Anita R. Wood, associate professor of computer information technology and one of the coordinators of the AR Sandbox initiative, anticipates that it will be quite valuable for her gaming and simulation students.

“When we design terrain for video games, we have to do it in a 2-D world. It’s a tough illusion building terrain when it’s a 2-D world,” she said. “With the sandbox, we can build the terrain we want in a 3-D environment, capture its attributes and put the file in Unity (a game development platform), which will build the desired terrain within our video game.”

The AR Sandbox’s potential fit with the gaming and simulation major prompted Mike M. Cunningham, outgoing vice president for information technology/chief information officer, to research and recommend its installation at the college. Cunningham discovered the system while visiting the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh last year.

“After seeing how it was made and the technology it used, I knew it fit with what our gaming and simulation students were experimenting with and that it might be a good way to showcase that major at any kind of recruitment activity,” he said.

Cunningham forwarded the idea to Webb, who discussed the project with faculty and began considering the multidisciplinary potential.

Penn College joins a growing number of schools and museums throughout the United States and scores of countries that have installed the AR Sandbox. A complete unit is available for purchase, but UC Davis provides for free the instructions for building the various components.

Jacob R. Miller and Sandra Gorka, associate professors of computer information technology, followed those instructions in making the sandbox and its lower cabinet. The duo spent approximately 200 hours constructing the unit out of birch plywood and finishing it with spar polyurethane. Howard W. Troup, maintenance mechanic/millwright specialist, built a 7-foot-tall post and its brackets that secure the 3-D camera, sensor and projector above the sand. Information Technology Services provided the projector and computer hardware.

“We are grateful that many members of the Penn College family shared their unique talents to make this exciting project a reality,” Webb said.

For information on degrees and programs offered by the School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education and workforce development. Email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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