Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Augmented reality sand tables

Sand tables have been used by military planners since—well, pretty much as long as there has been both sand and military planners. They provide a cheap and simple way to model terrain and display enemy deployments, a proposed course of action, or whatever else needs to be depicted.


2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Exercise Yudh Abhyas 09.

As we noted at PAXsims a couple of years ago, even Syrian rebels sometimes prepare for an attack with the visual aid of a sand table.

Kita’ib Ahrar al-Sham planning an attack upon a Syrian government S-75 (SA-2) SAM battery near Aleppo.

Kita’ib Ahrar al-Sham planning an attack upon a Syrian government S-75 (SA-2) SAM battery near Aleppo.

Now the US military is experimenting with “Augmented Reality Sand” using a Microsoft Kinect video game motion sensor and a data projector.

The Augmented REality Sand table (ARES).

The Augmented REality Sandtable (ARES).

According to the Marine Corps Times:

Called the Augmented Reality Sand Table, the concept is under development by the Army Research Laboratory and on display at this year’s Modern Day Marine on Marine Corps Base Quantico. The set-up is simple: a small sand box is rigged with a Microsoft Kinect video game motion sensor and an off-the-shelf projector. Using existing software, the sensor can detect features in the sand and project a realistic topographical map that corresponds to the layout — one that can change at a moment’s notice when observers move the sand around in the box.

And that’s just a start.

The set-up can also project real maps from Google Earth or similar technologies, enabling units to visualize the exact terrain they’ll be covering for exercises or operations. While the capability isn’t yet built in, the lab is working on developing visual cues, like arrows, that would appear to help troops shape the sandbox to match the topography of specified map.

All of these things save the warfighter time, said Charles Amburn, senior instructional systems specialist for the lab’s Simulation and Training Technology Center.

“With a traditional sand table, you’ve got to create the grid and then somebody’s got to go take that map and say, ‘in this grid, there’s a hole here,’” Amburn said. “By the time it’s done, you’ve spent an hour setting up for an exercise or a scenario.”

Down the road, the concept could allow troops from distant bases or even international partners to conduct joint training and operations via 3-D maps they can upload and project. And maps can be easily reset and scenarios “rewound” in a way that just isn’t possible on traditional static sand tables, Amburn said.

Amburn said the lab has also begun studying whether interacting with the 3-D sand table map improves cognition compared to typical 2-D maps.

Future possibilities include large-scale models that could project over a gymnasium floor for a battalion briefing, and a smartphone version that could use a pocket-sized projector to turn any patch of dirt into an operational 3-D map. The concept can be developed to allow users to move structures or map features in the projection with just a hand gesture, said Amburn….

The military is far from the first to do this—researchers in the earth sciences have been experimenting with such techniques for sometime now to help teach “geographic, geologic, and hydrologic concepts such as how to read a topography map, the meaning of contour lines, watersheds, catchment areas, levees, etc.” You’ll find a video demonstrating a non-military application of the technology below from the UC Davis’ W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES), which also provides instructions on how to build one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: