TNS — Back in May, several Athens School District administrators showcased a new technology that the district has at its disposal.

The new piece of equipment isn't really one piece: it uses a computer tower running Linux, a short-throw projector, an Xbox 360 Kinect 3-D sensing camera, and lots of sand.

All those components create a 3-D topographic map that teachers are using to bridge the gap between classroom learning and hands-on experiences. When the map is on, it seems simple in its processes, but district Information Technology Director Clint Nichols said the whole setup took months to complete.

"Effectively what it is, is a 3-D positioning system," Nichols said.

The Xbox camera actually houses dual cameras that recognize 3-D positions and movement.

"What the software does is it takes that 3-D depth of field and starts with base plane (the sandbox) and, from the camera, determines how high the sand is," Nichols said. "The software can generate a 3-D topographical map overtop of the sand."

Essentially, the camera, which is mounted about three feet above the sandbox, detects peaks and valleys in the sand while the projector displays topographic lines and different colors depending on the elevation of the sand.

But the fun doesn't stop there.

Another function of the software — which Nichols said was made available by its creator, Oliver Kreylos, who is a project scientist with the geology department at University of California, Davis — is creating rain clouds.

Nichols said by putting a hand about 10 to 12 inches from the sand, the software simulates a rain cloud.

When the "cloud" is detected, the software tells the projector to douse the area in blue light, which represents water.

And from there, students can make lakes and rivers by creating divots and trenches in the sand.

The simulated water runs to the lowest point detected by the camera, so long as it follows a trench.

Nichols said the software took a while to get used to and figure out.

"It took us a quite a bit of time to beat the software into submission to make it work," he said.

He actually had to find out how to enable the camera to work with the software and also had to use the operating system's command lines to properly align and calibrate the projector with the camera's detections.

The whole sandbox is on wheels, with the projector and camera mounted above the sandbox, which sit at about waist level.

Nichols said Ron Fritz with the district's Tech Ed Department and teacher Jamie McNeil helped build, seal, and paint the structure of the sandbox, as well.

Students didn't have a hand in setting up the sandbox because Nichols said working with the hardware and software was "pretty detailed."

"The second time (doing this) I could probably work with a senior for a senior project to make it happen," he said. "But that's because I've already figured everything that was necessary."

Nichols said in the future he'd like to see a newer version of the software released, where more detail can be displayed on the sand, such as trees, but said he's unsure if Kreylos is planning on doing so.

But what matters most is the classroom applicability of the sandbox, which is housed in Lynch-Bustin Elementary School.

"What we've had teachers do is they will print out a topographical map of the Valley, bring it in and say 'duplicate this,'" Nichols said. "And they'll go through and duplicate it (in the sandbox) and simulate the flood of 2011."

Nichols said the whole point of the sandbox is to help students put their classroom lessons to practical use for better understanding of concepts.

The sandbox will hopefully be used at Harlan-Rowe Middle School, where students have dedicated geography classes as opposed to the overarching lessons in elementary school.

But he said even senior students were excited to use the sandbox. 

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