Shaping the future of technology with 200 pounds of primal sand

Teseo Schneider tests the sand box applicazione presented at the CeBIT in Hannover
Teseo Schneider tests the sand box applicazione presented at the CeBIT in Hannover
Teseo Schneider tests the sand box applicazione presented at the CeBIT in Hannover
Teseo Schneider tests the sand box applicazione presented at the CeBIT in Hannover

Institutional Communication Service

31 October 2016

Prof. Kai Hormann and Teseo Schneider

Snow-capped mountains, forest valleys, alpine lakes and deep abysses. Imagine what it would be like to create these landscapes with a simple movement of your hands. Imagine yourself a child on the seashore, giving shape to your adventures and imaginary worlds in such an easy way that it seems natural. At the Hanover CeBIT, we will present an application that can evoke these sensations, while leading the way to understanding some of the most relevant aspects of computer science, especially in the area of research that concerns us, which is "Geometric and Visual Computing". 

A cliché has it that people dealing with informatics spend their days locked up in a room glued to a screen, surrounded by numbers and codes. The reality is quite different: in addition to the theoretical aspects of fundamental research, what really drives us computer scientists is curiosity, the urge to understand and improve many aspects of everyday life, which increasingly sees many aspects mediated by technology. To create this application we used 200 kilos of pure white sand, a table, a few aluminum spurs, screws and bolts. “Old style” hardware, to which we connected an ordinary beamer, a Microsoft Kinect and – most importantly – a programmed software capable of bringing the whole thing to life. Thanks to the very precise Kinect measurement of the height of the various sand mounds, based on their measured distance, the beamer colors the ground, colouring it in different shades: pure snow white if the distance is short (i.e., the mountain is high),  deep blue is the distance increases (i.e. the cavity is pronounced). The "trick" is in the graphics card and especially in the program code that guides it and that we have developed, which is capable of reading the 3D texture of sand and of adapting in real time. 

The reason for all this is twofold. First, the simple “sand” installation is used during courses given in our Faculty and for educational purposes: we ask our students to get to know the program, understanding at first a few basic elements that govern the field of graphics and computer vision; then, we ask them to go further, to be explore their imagination and create algorithms that will improve the application’s ultimate experience – skiers, sailboats, volcanic eruptions? Anything is possible using the right code and this is one of the most important lessons, in general, of the entire field of computer science. 

Starting from fundamental research, which is our core competences, and going beyond, in the future this project could offer interesting opportunities from an industrial perspective: in the vast market of interactive games, the possibility of shaping highly technological virtual worlds with a primal material such as sand could in fact open new scenarios, from the point of view of usage and from that of programming, thus speeding up the still very long production processes. This is what augmented reality is all about: the easy and immediate relationship between mind, in this case hands, and technology, which will enrich the life experience of humans of the third millennium.