All About the sARndbox: An Augmented Reality Playground

Update: sARndbox “In Plain English” video

Our kiddos made their own video explaining the AR sandbox ūüôā
I’ve been posting a lot on social media about our latest makerspace creation and so many people (okay, 2) have asked how we did it (and provided a lot of encouragement on the days I thought it might fail – thanks #TCEAtribe). Hopefully this blog post answers most of the questions. Once I go through all of our video footage (the kids took over 4 hours of footage), I’ll post some more videos on our process. As always, if you have any questions or need clarification, please just reach out to me at @LibrarianLister.
I wish I could say we came up with the idea, but we definitely didn’t. Oliver Kreylos, a computer scientist studying 3D scientific visualizations and computational geosciences at UC Davis designed and programmed the AR sandbox software. He made the software available as open source – YAY! – so we, and YOU can go grab it. #GoOpen. We first learned of these sandboxes at the Young Innovators Fair in Philadelphia this January. Myself and another teacher took a group of 20 very curious middle schoolers to this event over our Winter break. It was phenomenal.
Shortly after the Fair, we got asked to present something relating to makerspaces at the Taste of Hershey. The Taste of Hershey is our school’s foundation’s biggest fundraiser. A bunch of restaurants and businesses come together for a day of fun conversation and great food.
There are a lot of resources out there on Augmented Reality sandboxes. Of which, I understood none completely. If it weren’t for my genius, computer-programming and mechanically inclined students, I would truly have a box with sand.
This blog post is an attempt to put the many resources into plain English and I’ll provide links along the way so you can see more.


There are quite a few videos out there about the AR sandbox (trust me, we watched them all!) but this one does a great job of just answering the big “WHAT IS IT” question.


AR Sandbox uses a computer projector and a motion­ sensing input device (an Xbox Kinect) mounted above a box of sand. The Kinect detects the distance to the sand below, and a visualization ­­ an elevation model with contour lines (aka. a topographic map) and a color map assigned by elevation ­­ is cast from an overhead projector onto the surface of the sand. As the sand is moved, the Kinect perceives changes in the distance to the sand surface, and the projected colors and contour lines change accordingly. When an object (for example, a hand) is sensed at a particular height above the surface of the sand, virtual rain appears as a blue, shimmering visualization on the surface below. The water appears to flow down the slopes to lower surfaces.


Here are the must-have’s to create your own AR sandbox:
  • A sandbox that is a 4:3 ratio (this is so it matches the ratio of the projector). It’s not a big deal if your box is bigger than the 4:3 ratio, just know that your projection won’t fill the entire box. You can either build your sandbox out of wood (what we did) or find something to use as a makeshift sandbox (think dresser drawer or a plastic storage bin).
    • Ours was 32″ x 24″. In hindsight, I might have made it a little bigger but since we did a lot of transporting, I’m glad ours was smaller.
    • If building your sandbox out of wood (as we did), I’d recommend water sealing it or lining it with a plastic tarp of some sort. Ours is not a permanent fixture so we did neither.
    • TIPS: Your INTERIOR measurements are what’s important. So if you’re using 2″ thick wood for your sandbox walls, you’d want to factor that in when building the box.
  • Caulk to seal the inside of the sandbox. I guess this wasn’t super necessary but our kids liked using the caulk gun.
  • Sand that will cover your entire sandbox with at least 4″ of sand.
    • We used Play Sand from Home Depot¬†and added a little bit of water when we did the demonstrations. This way we could do a bit more molding. We used 3, 50lb bags ($3.90 x 3 = $11.70)
    • Some places recommend white sand such as this kind from Sandtastic but its much more expensive ($31.99 x 6 = $191.94)
    • You can also use Moon Sand¬†($58.04 x 8 = $464.32) or Kinetic Sand¬†($49.99 x 14 = $699.86) if you want a crazy experience.
  • A computer with at least the following:
    • Running the 64bit version of Linux
    • At least an Intel i5 (preferrably an i7 processor) running at least 3GHz. The better the processor, the faster the Kinect can scan and simultaneous project what it’s rendering. Ours was about a 3 second delay because of our 5 year old i5. We found an i5 processor in an old computer in the technology “death room”.
    • 2 GB of RAM to run the software.
    • A hard drive with at least 20GB free for the installation of Linux and the software
    • A sweet graphics card. We used a GTX 950 ($177.99) but I would not go any lower than that. Ideally, go with the 980TI ($619.99)¬†as it will look much more like the quality in the video above. We have a lot of students that build their own computers for fun. One of our students that was instrumental in building this had a 950 that we used.
  • A first generation¬†xBox Kinect¬†for the Xbox 360 (not the Xbox One!) A lot of kids have upgraded to Xbox One so we had several kids bring in their “extra” kinects.
  • A short throw projector. (Teachers: Think ceiling mounted projector for SMART board vs. the ones you’d set on a cart in the back of the classroom).¬†Originally we used an old projector from the technology “death room” but the bulb died the day before the “show” (#storyofmylife). So much to the displeasure of my technology department, I stole the one from my library classroom. (#sorrynotsorry)
    • You’ll want a projector that has HDMI or DVI that way you can take full advantage of the graphics card. You can still use a projector that has a VGA component, but it will definitely cut back on the quality output.
  • Something the mount the projector and Kinect above the sandbox.
    • Your Kinect should be mounted at the same height as your box is wide. (Our box was 32″ wide, so we mounted the Kinect 32″ high)
  • A vacuum (see images below)
  • Mountain Dew, Italian Four Cheese CheezIts (“must haves” according to middle schoolers)
  • Camera to document everything
  • Patience.
  • Perseverance.

Basically, it will look like this.

Or, if you can’t read middle school, this:


Before we built the box, we built the computer. We tested the projection and 3D rendering by this very sophisticated prototype made out of masking tape (see above)
We stayed after school one evening to build the box. My husband cut the wood and did some pre-drilling. The rest was up to the kids. A few kids had never used a drill before. Boy were they ever stoked!! Once we had the box assembled, we needed to figure out the mount for the projector.
I was super nervous about this part because it needs to be perfect. Reading through some of the help forums, I knew we needed a way to make this super study, but also somewhat adjustable. Sorry but that was way above me. We left that evening with an “eh…let’s sleep on it” kind of feeling.
And then I got to school the next day and one of my students was waiting with this masterpiece:
Uh…yeah. I know, right? He took a fence post, attached one part of the projector mount to it. Then, he took a steel pipe and put it in adjustable camps to which he soldered¬†another steel pipe so we could mount the Kinect.
I’m not sure what made me happier – the solution to our problem, or the look of accomplishment on Joey’s face ALL day. (Definitely the latter).¬†
The pictures above were taken before school actually started. The kids came by, saw Joey’s creation, and didn’t even go to their locker before they started putting it together.
Once we had everything set up, we put the box on an old laptop cart so that it was study and could house the
The last step was calibration¬†and boy was that a task! We spent a solid 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon just doing the calibration. And we still didn’t perfect the water simulation piece. At 4:30 on Saturday, we went home praying that the thing would work tomorrow.
So on Sunday morning (raining, of course), I brought my Ford Ranger to school and packed up everything. I went to take the sandbox to my car and it wouldn’t fit through the door.¬†SERIOUSLY?!
So we quickly moved it to a smaller cart (an old projector cart) and just prayed that it wouldn’t fall.
Eventually, we got it there.


The community response on the AR sandbox was overwhelmingly positive. People thought this was a project for gifted and they were so surprised to learn that this wasn’t a project at all, it was just a bunch of kids interested in learning more about this.

As I was editing this post, we received a phone call asking us to present at the Business Leaders Breakfast next week. I guess I’ll be dismantling that projector in my library again ūüôā


  • This resource has some CAD blueprints of the AR Sandbox (in .dwg files)
  • As with every complex creation comes its own help forum. This was a life saver in our final moments.
  • This Facilitation Guide was meant for museums, but has a lot of great tips for teachers too.
I hope this helped some of you get an idea of what in the world I was posting about the past month.
This is our next project:
A game table made from a cheap IKEA end table and a Raspberry Pi.

It Didn’t Work…but It Wasn’t a Failure

Last year I immersed myself in maker education. I followed everyone imaginable, read every book published, and learned as much as I could. As my knowledge grew, I became more and more excited about what a makerspace could look like at my school. Our district was also immersing itself in blended education and was big on the idea of the library as a Learning Commons. After working with our Director of Infrastructure Technology, Director of Instructional Technology, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, and my building administrators, a makerspace vision was developed.

I also made this infographic.

Knowing I would be on maternity leave for the 1st marking period, I did as much planning prior to the start of the school year. Unfortunately/fortunately, my bundle of joy arrived nearly a month early and I wasn’t at the spot I needed to be in order to officially “start” the Makerspace.

I returned to school a few weeks ago and had the official “grand opening” of the HMS Makerspace. Kids flocked to the library. I mean FLOCKED. It was chaos. Beautiful chaos. And I loved it! It was the best distraction from being away from my children.

And after a few days, the beauty disappeared and it was just chaos. Pure and simple. 

And I was devastated. 

So I paused. I put everything on hold and just watched and observed. I needed to know what was going wrong in order for me to fix it. And I’m so glad I did. I learned that some of the “best” things about my school and my library were actually working against the way I had set up the Makerspace. 

Wide Open Spaces

Our library is this large, open space with huge ceilings and glass wall/window overlooking our courtyard. It’s a beautiful space. Unfortunately, the echo is AWFUL. Imagine having a library in a natatorium without any sound barriers (yeah, it’s that bad). So the echo is great if you’re trying preserve the traditional quiet library space, as even a whisper travels across the room. Without saying too much more, you can see why this is an issue.

Staggered Classes and Study Halls

Our middle school operates on a traditional 7 period day, but each grade level has a slightly adjusted schedule (don’t worry if you don’t understand, I don’t either). Students visit the library before school, after school, and during “flex” (study hall). Since each grade level has a slightly adjusted schedule, 7th grade could be in core classes while 8th grade is having their flex period. I work on a flexible schedule which is AWESOME, except for when the class overlaps with flex (which it ALWAYS does). Because of problem #1, I am forced to close the library for flex when I have a class scheduled.

Not Everyone Wants to Use the Makerspace

This was big for me. I think I was trying to make the entire library a makerspace. I think I was so excited to eliminate the notion of the “traditional” library, that I forgot that it still serves a purpose. School libraries are first and foremost a place to support the students and the curriculum. And while the makerspace has a huge curricular impact, it addresses one piece of the pie. I still needed a place for students to read quietly, work on homework, and makeup tests. Not every student comes to the library to code or make Justin Bieber’s eyes light up with LittleBits. And while it seems obvious now, it took me a while to realize this. Fortunately, everyone around me realized it and pointed it out to me. Some kids explained that they couldn’t concentrate in the library. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to enjoy the makerspace, but they had priorities and I was making their decision difficult by tempting them with these cool things. Teachers explained that they really counted on the library as a place to send kids if their study hall was noisy and kids needed to focus.

What to do?

It was clear that we had students that wanted to come to the library for the makerspace and students that wanted to come to the library for a focused, academic purpose. Unfortunately, because of our open floor plan, they were on top of each other. So I was sitting in my office drawing up some plans of how I could once again rearrange the library (my maintenance department was going to kill me). And then it hit me. My office. Let’s move the makerspace into my office. 

It took me all of 30 minutes to clean out my office. It was only my second year at this school so I hadn’t accumulated much stuff. Further, I hated being in there anyway. Even though the office has glass walls (which makes it PERFECT for the makerspace), I always felt as though there was a barrier between me and the students. Again, barrier = PERFECT for this situation. 

I had already scheduled my maintenance department to come in and help me move things, but while they were there, I ran by an idea that I found at AASL. And it worked AWESOME! We have these beautiful, sturdy oak tables, but they aren’t the best for flexible spaces. So we purchased some castors and my maintenance department replaced the feet with wheels ūüôā It’s awesome! Now I have beautiful, study furniture that is also moveable!
So here are some pictures of our “NEW” Makerspace. Although its a little cramped, it doesn’t seem to bother the kids.

LittleBits station (on our “new” moveable tables)
MakeyMakey station (my old desk)

Ozobot station
I learned so much through this process. 

1. Makerspaces aren’t a one-size-fits-all model. Keep your school’s vision and mission at the heart of the space.

2. Creating a makerspace doesn’t mean abandoning your library.

3. Succeeding after a failure is SO much more rewarding. And after all, isn’t that what we’re trying to teach our kids through maker activities?

The #1 Makerspace Resource: Your Students!

If you are looking to start a makerspace at your school or library, there are a wealth of resources available to help you get started. I would be so lost if it weren’t for many of these. They also have a lot of research supporting the maker movement.

In addition, there have been a few key individuals whose blogs I follow religiously.
Renovated Learning Рblog of Diana Rendina @DianaLRendina
Create, Collaborate, Innovate – blog of Colleen Graves @gravescolleen
Worlds of Learning  Рblog of Laura Fleming @NMHS_lms

These resources have been invaluable to me in determining projects, designing the space, and the many planning and logistics that are involved. They’ve also helped me anticipate and work through any issues that may arise.
What these resources didn’t provide was the voice from my students and teachers. No matter how many reputable sources or blogs I consulted, I wasn’t getting the input and feedback that really mattered.

Student Voice from Day 1

I’ll be honest – starting a makerspace was not on my list of things to accomplish this year. But in October our 7th grade students were in the midst of their campaigns for class president and many of their campaign posters had things about the library. Some of them recommended adding a second floor, some of them recommended adding a pool table. One of our students suggested a LEGO wall for the library. I had no idea what it was until he showed me an image he found on Google. Turns out, that image was from Diana Rendina’s blog. Anyway, this was the start of it all. Although that student wasn’t elected class president, we decided to continue with the LEGO wall. We had about 6 students involved and they planned the entire thing from start to finish. Take a look at their Google Doc here.¬†
A ton of learning went into the planning of the LEGO wall. The kids researched the required materials, did all of the math to figure out what was needed, and then did research to compare prices. Once we had a materials list and a cost, we brainstormed some ideas for fundraising. Things got really interesting here! We had everything suggested from a car wash (in November) to selling $0.25 bags of chips in the library. In the end, we followed in Diana’s footsteps and I did my first DonorsChoose project. The kids were awesome at marketing the project. In fact, their parents were some of our biggest donors. It makes sense that parents would contribute to something that directly impacts their child.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about our makerspace (yet). Instead, I really want to focus on why I think its going to work – the students. All of our purchases, arrangement, and programs have stemmed from the students. We have a group of students called the “Creative Council” (they wanted to be called the Imagineers but then they had an argument about copyright…again more learning). This group serves as representatives for their grade to provide input on our library space. Essentially, there job is to ask their peers what they want and then report back. Our 7th grade team decided to post a huge banner in the hallway asking “what do you want to see in the library?”¬†WARNING: DON’T DO THIS. Especially if you’re in a middle/high school. Let’s just say we got some pretttyy interesting and grossly inappropriate responses.

So if you’re currently thinking about starting a makerspace (or even if you already have), please include your students on the decision making process. Just because something is successful in another makerspace, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be successful in yours. So while there are loads of great resources out there (and growing), the most important resource is right in front of you.

P.S. When asking your students for suggestions, be prepared for some wild and crazy ideas. We’ve had suggestions for a petting zoo, skate park, a pool table. We also had a suggestion for a beehive and a goat to put in our courtyard to mow the lawn. And while those ideas won’t work, it was so fun having the discussion. And remember, amidst those 50 crazy ideas, you’ll have a few amazing ones!