Students in Spring Creek Campus geology courses will look at topography in a new way this year with the addition of an Augmented Reality Sandbox to the campus’ stable of teaching tools.

Augmented Reality Sandbox video clip capture.

Check out the Augmented Reality Sandbox in action with an appearance by one of the co-builders.

Augmented reality is a technology which provides additional visual information to the viewer beyond what is physically there. Used in cell phones as games or for mapping applications, the technology takes a camera’s image of the world and overlays imagery – often interactive imagery – onto the real-world environment. Despite the similar-sounding names, augmented reality differs from virtual reality, because it “adds” to the viewer’s world instead of “replacing” it.

In the case of AR Sandbox, a 3D (depth-sensing) camera focuses on a surface of sand and determines the “elevation” of the peaks and valleys. Via computer software, the camera’s data is delivered to a projector mounted above the sand which projects contours (lines of elevation) and color banding onto the sand surface, showing higher elevations in a different color from lower ones. The result is a topographical map that is changed as easily as dragging a finger through the sand.

The tool will be used as a teaching aid for students in Geology 1401, 1402 and 1403, according to Collin College Geology Lab Instructor Stacey Bilich. Bilich and professor Neal Alexandrowicz built the sandbox over the summer with plans and software provided by KeckCAVES at the University of California – Davis. Randy Culver, of the college’s Academic Technology and Network Services department, was instrumental in setting up the computer, software and other technical components of the AR Sandbox.

“Our main use will be to teach students about topography because most people have difficulty translating what they see on a two-dimensional topographic map into what that looks like in three dimensions,” she said. “An Augmented Reality Sandbox provides a different representation of topography, beyond giving people a flat piece of paper and asking them to visualize in their head what all of those lines represent.”

Bilich said that the sandbox is currently used as a supplemental teaching tool and  cannot be implemented into the formal curriculum at this point because Spring Creek Campus is the only Collin campus to have one. However, she hopes that one day it may be.

“It would be lovely if, over the course of the next year, we got the other two campuses sandboxes,” she said. “The curriculum for some geology courses is standardized across the district, so the lessons are based on what is available at all campuses.”