Augmented Reality Sandbox Hits Worldwide Milestone

By Becky Oskin

With more than 500 installations on six continents, the UC Davis Augmented Reality, or AR, Sandbox, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox shows how land forms affect water flow. (UC Davis KeckCAVES)

The AR Sandbox brings earth science to life by merging hands-on play with digital effects. The setup combines a real sandbox with a motion-sensing camera (such as a Microsoft 3D Kinect) and a digital projector. As people shape the sand with their hands or with tools, the camera detects the changes and a computer projects colors depicting elevation, vividly illustrating the principles of topographic maps. Users can also create rainstorms, lakes and rivers and immediately see how reshaping the sand surface changes the water flow.

The prototype sandbox and its open-source software were developed in 2012 by UC Davis research scientist Oliver Kreylos at the W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES) with Burak Yikilmaz and Professor Louise Kellogg in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Heather Segale and Professor Geoff Schladow at the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center and Sherry Hsi at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Supported with funding from the National Science Foundation, an additional three exhibits were built in 2013 at TERC, the ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, and the Lawrence Hall of Science.

In April 2016, an AR Sandbox made stops at the White House Water Summit and the USA Science and Engineering Festival before reaching its final destination at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in Washington D.C. The traveling sandbox was built and donated by UC Davis.

Kreylos and colleagues have made software, plans and instructions for building their AR Sandbox available online: hundreds of schools, universities and science education centers have downloaded plans and built their own.

The 500th AR Sandbox was unveiled Feb. 7, 2018, at the Contra Costa Water District in Concord, California. A regularly updated map of all sandbox locations is available here.

You can learn more about the AR Sandbox and download instructions to build your own at

Becky Oskin writes for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science. Follow her on Twitter @UCDavis_LandS.

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