Introducing the Terrain Box

What if you could learn the skill of contour reading without leaving the house? What if you could play God and create your own terrain and map simultaneously? Introducing the AR Sandbox! But this time it’s the Terrain Box.

The AR Sandbox is a relatively simple augmented reality (AR) system which maps a small sandpit in real-time and draws the map onto the sand surface itself. In this blog I want to share just a brief overview, but later on I will go into more detail about how the whole system works.

My vision was to provide an interactive and intuitive experience for learning how to read contours. For me, reading contours is one of the hardest skills to successfully communicate when coaching and I believe a tool like this could be a huge help in making this process much easier for coaches and more impactful for learners.

Everyone getting involved with the Terrain Box displaying a coloured height map

The research behind this project was done at UC Davis, California, with intended applications focused on geographic concepts such as how to read a topographic map, the meaning of contour lines, watersheds, catchment areas and levees. While the water flow functionality is mesmerisingly cool, my focus was obviously on the contours. All the necessary software is publicly available and suggestions on the physical arrangement are also provided online, but these are dependent on how big you want the box to be and the specific projector being used. While the basic information provided is sufficient for making an AR Sandbox for a classroom or museum, I had some bonus challenges to overcome. I wanted to make my version portable so I’ve made the frame (the upper part that holds the camera and projector over the box) easily removable and my box has handles. Foam is also available to build up higher hills without needing to weigh the box down with more heavy sand. The sand it’s self is very white and very fine, perfect for displaying a vivid image and building smooth shapes.

Using the coloured height map as an introductions to contours

I gave the Terrain Box its first outing at NZ Champs a few weeks back, set up at the NWOC accommodation. It got a lot of use (80ish people) over the 2 evenings it was set up for. It was great to see all the juniors get stuck in, but I was most excited to see the engagement from the adults in our club, many of whom have been dragged into orienteering by their children and skimmed through a lot of the important foundational learning around how to read contours. I now see the Terrain Box’s best value in unwinding the habits of many senior orienteers and giving them a second chance to get the fundamentals right.

The clean look with colours removed makes the Terrain Box a navigation-specific tool purely for connecting contours on 2D maps to the land forms of the real 3D world

The next step is to make a progression of exercises, starting from very easy, like a single large hill, to very hard, like numerous small features on a slope, where the objective is to read the map and create the terrain while using the Terrain Box to check your work as you build the land forms. Setting up the exercises in reverse is also an interesting idea and should generate a lot of appreciation for the challenge professional mappers face in creating some of our wonderful maps.

Its second showing will be at a work event where people share home projects with their colleagues and then its third at the NWOC end of year prize giving. I aim to bring it to the forest next year and I’m open to more suggestions around how to get maximum use out of this new toy. Also get in touch if you are thinking of building our own.