Skip directly to content

No ordinary sandbox

NSF Award:

Alaska Adapting to Changing Environments (Alaska ACE)  (University of Alaska Fairbanks Campus)

Congressional Districts:
Research Areas:

Technicians funded by the Alaska Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) have developed an "augmented-reality sandbox" to interest the public in geography, geology and other fields. The sandbox lets people create mountain ranges and bodies of water with their hands.

As they generate these geographic landmarks, an overhead projector turns their hills and valleys into a colored topographic map projected on the sand. This approach allows users to see how topography lines change as the landscape changes. However, the sandbox, created by researchers with the Geographic Information Network of Alaska (GINA), and based at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, does more than just add colors and contour lines. When users hover their hands over the sandbox, it interprets the movement as a cloud and virtual rain drops onto the landscape, creating channels in the valleys.

To construct the sandbox, the team, led by Eric Stevens, used open-source software and parts based on a project by a faculty member at the University of California, Davis. The group unveiled their creation at the 2014 Alaska Conference on Surveying and Mapping in Fairbanks. It is now used as an outreach tool to engage the public in science and to demonstrate GINA research. In the future, the GINA team plans to build a mobile version of the sandbox to take to science fairs and museums. 


  • a designer sculpts a waterway in the sand using an augmented-reality sandbox
David Kroto sculpts a waterway in the sand of the augmented-reality sandbox.
Eric Engman, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Recent Award Highlights

an expedition member during 2011 ascent of mount kilimanjaro

A mountain view of biomes and ice caps

Teachers atop Mount Kilimanjaro discuss climate change with students around the globe

Research Areas: Education Locations: Alaska International
remains of a bristol bay fishing boat in dillingham alaska

Big science comes to tiny fishing town

Alaska's Dillingham hosts two major science conferences

Research Areas: Education Locations: Alaska International