WMU Adds Augmented Reality Sandbox to Museum

DJ DeLong
Creative writing and history major
College of Arts and Sciences, Marketing and Communication student employee

WMU students creating topography modelsThe Lloyd J. Schmaltz Geology and Mineral Museum at Western Michigan University has recently added an augmented reality (AR) sandbox to its collection. The AR sandbox is a hands-on exhibit combining a real sandbox with virtual topography created by using a closed loop of a Microsoft Kinect 3D camera, powerful simulation and visualization software and a data projector. Kyle Chouinard, system administrator and programmer in WMU's Department of Geosciences created this innovative addition to the Schmaltz Geology and Mineral Museum. 

The AR sandbox allows users to create topography models by terraforming real sand, which is then augmented in real time by an elevation color map, topographic contour lines and simulated water. When asked what made the museum, Thomas Howe, the museum’s curator, stated, "We feel that this type of exhibit offers an irresistible combination—the timeless tactile joy of sand in hand plus a dollop of whiz-bang tech to top it off."

Spatial visualization is required for understanding many geological concepts. The AR sandbox allows students to work on developing their spatial thinking skills. Howe said, "Incorporating 3D visualizations into teaching geology can remove barriers related to spatial thinking and may help improve spatial ability." Geology is among the most visual of the sciences, so students benefit immensely from the AR sandbox. It creates an engaging and interactive experience that has been shown to gain and hold students attention, which increases their motivation to learn. According to Howe, the museum is seeing more students from outside of the department stopping in and bringing their friends to play with the AR sandbox which has been added to an already impressive collection that includes fossil shark teeth, the Michigan Copper Boulder, an outdoor garden, a UV fluorescent display, local Mastodon fossils and world-class gem and mineral specimens.

The Department of Geosciences is celebrating its 50-year anniversary in the fall of 2015 by highlighting accomplishments and honoring its students, alumni, faculty and staff. Visit the Department of Geosciences online for upcoming news and events related to the celebration.