Interactive 3D Sandbox – Kinect Hack

by Fred Abler

It’s hard to recall how much fun we used to have in sandboxes as kids. It all came back to me this weekend while visiting Marc and his family in San Diego, CA. Marc’s son Raef is only five, yet his knowledge of tractors and earth movers is truly encyclopedic.

Blades, dozers, excavators, skid steers, cranes… and all the attachments: sheep’s foot, buckets, jackhammer, etc. He can name them all. The boy is tractor and truck obsessed!!

Fig 1– Raef at the San Diego Zoo excavating wooly Mammoth bones this morning. He’s wearing his favorite John Deer pajamas (not kidding about tractor obsession) and of course his zoofari hat.

Raef is never without his toy trucks, tractors, and earth movers. Marc has three baskets full of sandbox toys in the trunk at all times. So one night after dinner down by the beach… we began making tunnels and digging in a giant sandbox.

It was so much fun that even though it was getting dark, and we were really chilled and damp from the fog, the sand started to stick better… so no one wanted to go. Most of us can remember this kind of pure play in a sandbox from our youth.

It’s hard to improve on pure play, but that won’t stop university researchers trying. A high-tech sandbox is being developed at U.C. Davis. It’s a Kinect hack that overlays a high resolution video projector on top of a good old fashioned sandbox, with stunning results.

Fig 2. Raef’s Future Sandbox. A kinect-enhanced sandbox that automatically captures the topography in real time, and enables your to simulate water and things like damn failures.

This Sandbox project was originally “inspired” by a video that was made by Czech researchers last fall. I use quotes here because after watching the Czech video, any new knowledge the U.C. Davis group brings to the sand-table…  is at best, derivative.

None the less, the work at U.C. Davis is now supported by the National Science Foundation, which would ultimately like to see the virtual sandbox bring a hands-on yet hands-off approach to teaching earth science.

In other words, children can use the sandbox “with little supervision”. But why not some interactive supervision? One can imagine interactive tutorials where kids are led through damn failures, soil erosion, and other terra-forming exercises on-the-fly.

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