'Augmented reality' sandbox set up at library (with video)

photo Wil Flenniken, 6, holds his hand over an illuminated "augmented reality" sandbox that reveals contoured viewing of land and water in colors. The effort is spearheaded by Jake Brown, 17, the library's project coordinator.

Playing in the sand just got real at the Chattanooga Public Library.

An "augmented reality" sandbox was set up two weeks ago in the second-floor children's room at the main library downtown.

"It's to teach geography," said its 17-year-old creator, Jake Brown. "It's also just wicked cool."

As kids shaped the white sand with their hands Friday afternoon, colors and topographic lines shone down from a digital projector to match the ever-changing miniature landscape.

The hills had earth tones, the highest peaks were white and the valleys turned blue, as if the kids had dug down to groundwater. Dappled blue virtual water flowed downhill as Brown made it "rain" by holding his hand about a foot above the sandbox's surface.

"This is pretty awesome," said Ivonne Weidner, as her 3-year-old granddaughter, Caelyn Stewart, dug into the high-tech exhibit.

Brown spent about two months building the augmented reality sandbox, which was first developed at the University of California at Davis to teach earth science concepts. Its design and software are "open source," meaning anyone can copy it.

The exhibit uses a Kinect motion sensor from an Xbox 360 video game that gauges the sand's height using scattered dots of infrared light invisible to the naked eye. The U.C. Davis open-source software processes that information and produces topographic lines, different-colored elevations and simulated water that are shown on the sand from a digital projector.

"We are the first public library to have one of these," Brown said. "The Smithsonian has one. The Chattanooga Public Library has one, too."

Brown was hired at age 16 to work part-time at the library "because of his brilliance," library spokeswoman Mary Barnett said.

Brown skipped his final two years at Sequoyah High School in Soddy-Daisy and attends Collegiate High at Chattanooga State Community College. Brown's alma mater, Sequoyah High, built the wooden sandbox part of the exhibit.

If you're going to check out the augmented reality sandbox, bring a child with you. About a year ago, the library banned adults unaccompanied by children from the entire second floor.

The sandbox also will be on display at an all-ages Mozilla Maker Party to be held on the library's fourth floor from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.