A pair of University of Iowa undergraduate students are going above and beyond by creating a new tool for students to learn about gravity using a sandbox.
However, it's not your typical sandbox. Jacob Isbell and Mason Reed created the "Gravbox", a first-of-its-kind tool. Gravbox is an “augmented reality sandbox” that demonstrates how gravity works, using sand.
Students can shift sand into different shapes. The high points of the sand represent areas of a low mass while the areas dug in show portions of high mass, such as a planet. Over the sandbox is a 3-D camera that measures the sand and projects colors onto it to show the different mass levels. Through coding and the projection, a white particle moves through it to represent an object through orbit, such as a rocket, comet, or satellite.
"[It's] always drawn towards the heavier object, just like it would be in our solar system. Everything is going towards the sun rather than just the earth," Isbell said. "So, it just gives a visualization of the invisible forces that dominate in our universe."
Isbell and Reed believe this new tool will put a "face" to gravity and, in return, make it easier for people to understand how it works.
"Gravity is the dominant force and we really don't have a good representation of that right now, so we're trying to help bridge that gap and give people a better sense of what's happening in the background of the universe," Isbell said.
The Gravbox was inspired by another augmented reality sandbox at UCLA that is used for geography.
What started as a class project is now coming to fruition over a year later. They hope to be able to put similar boxes in schools and museums.
"Our ultimate hope is that people get some good out of that and it helps bridge that gap because you can skip the math and get a better understanding of the actual physics that's going on. So the goal is that, if it helps at least one student, I'll be happy," Isbell said.
Next week, Isbell will travel to Washington D.C for the American Astronomical Society meeting, where he will give a demonstration about Gravbox and how it will help with learning and research.
The Gravbox will be available to other university students to use on campus.