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Improving Student’s Three Dimensional Visualization Skills Using an Augmented Reality Sandbox

Scott Giorgis

Project Team
  • Kirk Anne, Computing and Information Technology (CIT)
  • Nancy Mahlen, Department of Geological Sciences, Geneseo

Geneseo, State University College at


Tier One

Project Abstract:

Topographic maps are a commonly used medium for describing the shape of the surface of the Earth. Topographic data are key to intelligently managing a wide variety of natural hazards (e.g., flooding, landslides, sea level rise, etc.), therefore a basic understanding of how to read and interpret topographic data is necessary not only for future geoscientists, but citizens in general. For that reason, most introductory courses in the Geological Sciences include a module intended to teach students how to read and interpret topographic maps. Many students, however, struggle with visualizing data presented in this fashion. These lab exercises are often a student’s first experience with reduction of a three-dimensional data set (i.e. the landscape) down to a two-dimensional, flat expression (i.e. a paper map).

While topographic maps may be an abstract concept to some, experience playing in a sandbox is far more common. In a sandbox you can intuitively create hills, valleys, craters, etc. and then change those landforms. In doing so you are altering the topography sand surface. Oliver Kreylos (University of California-Davis) has developed a process to quantify the landscape in a sandbox, calculate a topographic map, and then project that map back on the sand (i.e the “Augmented Reality Sandbox”; Figure 1). This turns a static, 2D paper topographic map into an interactive, 3D dynamic tool. As students dig into the sand and alter its landscape, the topographic map dynamically adjusts to match the new surface. The real time alteration of the map with the changing landscape provides students the opportunity to discover how to read topographic maps on their own. For example, students can answer questions such as: How are steep slopes displayed? Shallow slopes? Where will water accumulate? How does a landslide affect the local landscape? etc. The brilliance of Dr. Kreylos’ approach is that all students have to do is play in a sandbox.

Motivated by an inspiring YouTube video posted by Dr. Kreylos (see below), we built a prototype sandbox borrowing materials available here on campus and using the free software Dr. Kreylos developed. The Department of Geological Sciences see potential uses for this technology in a wide variety of classes ranging from the introductory level to upper level undergraduates, all together impacting a large number of students (approx. 800 student seats over an academic year). Additionally, local schools could use this system to teach topography in high school Earth Science classes (Livonia Central Schools and Rush-Henrietta Central Schools have expressed interest).

In addition to topography, the augmented reality sandbox is an ideal tool for teaching about the interaction between geologic planes (e.g. a bed of coal) and the surface of the earth (topography). The “outcrop” of a bed is the intersection between that unit and the surface of the Earth. This is a complex relationship because alteration of either the topography or the orientation of the unit changes the outcrop pattern. The ability to look at outcrop pattern on a map and visualize the 3D orientation of that unit, however, is a critical ability for students to develop. Geoscientists with this skill can predict the location of faults, anticipate the depth at which structures will be encountered underground, estimate where pollution will flow underground, etc. Although clearly useful, students often struggle to master the 3D visualization skills necessary to make the connection between the outcrop pattern, topography, and orientation of the planar unit.

Traditionally, the relationship between geologic planes and topography is taught using a combination of geologic maps and perspective diagrams. While this approach works for some students, many fail to develop an intuitive grasp of the relationship between outcrop pattern, topography, and orientation. We propose to build on the C++ program developed by Kreylos to develop a module in which students can introduce a geologic plane and see how that plane would outcrop on the surface of the earth. Students would then be able to actively alter the orientation of that plane and/or the topography to discover the complex relationship between these two surfaces.

We propose to use IITG Tier 1 funds to buy the materials to construct a set of two mobile augmented reality sandboxes to use in these classes. Anne and Giorgis will work together to identify student(s) capable of and interested in learning C++ to work on the new geologic planes module as an undergraduate research project. Giorgis and Mahlen will develop curriculum and assessment tools for implementation of the augmented reality sandbox at both the introductory and upper division levels.

Project Outcome:

Outcomes TBD