Watch Iowa Researchers Mold Mini-Universes with Sand and Augmented Reality

“We hope we’re bringing the cosmos to life.”

Some undergraduate students consider it a successful day if they arrive to their internship less than an hour late and attend one class. A group of students at the University of Iowa have truly set the bar high when it comes to crushing the undergrad game.

Jacob Isbell, an Iowa senior in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and a team of other students have created an augmented reality sandbox that simulates gravity and other astrophysical forces that make up the universe. Isbell spoke on Thursday at the American Astronomical Society — annual meeting in Washington, D.C — an explained how this project can serve as a useful interactive learning tool for other students.

Their creation was aptly titled “Gravbox” and allows users to mold their own universe and watch how objects, like spaceships or comets, react to the simulated gravitational forces in an AR environment. All you have to do is dig some holes or build some mounds inside of a wooden box and watch your sandy galaxy change in color.

“We hope we’re bringing the cosmos to life,” said Sadie Moore, a senior physics and astronomy major, in a statement. The project was meant to help visualize the multitude of invisible forces that are in the underpinnings of the known universe.

The project was funded by Iowa assistant professor Hai Fu, who used $405,011 that was granted to him by the U.S. National Science Foundation. He introduced the idea to his 10-student class back in 2016 who have been at work since.

Similar AR-sandboxes have been created as visualization for topography and geology but it’s the first time anything of the sort has been created for astronomy.

The creation of the Gravbox sets up the team responsible with a bright future in the astronomy or physics sector, as well as providing a learning tool for future students.

The group has made its software publicly available and is creating a website with a tutorial for building the system.

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