Anticlockwise, a San Francisco interactive art collective debuted their Animated Sandbox at the 2013 Maker Faire and to say that children of all ages dug it would be an understatement.

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The group used a depth-sensing Kinect camera to map the terrain of the “sand,” then projected that topography on an overhead screen. The lowest level, appropriately, was sea level, so on sceen, viewers watched as blue water filled in any deep valleys that were carved in the sand. As the terrain levels got higher, the projection went from water, to sandy shores, to green grass and trees. At the highest peaks of sand, viewers saw snow-capped mountains. The effect was quite hypnotic, dare I say God-like.

“We had a vision for an interactive, terrain morphing playground,” one of the creators, Richared DDT, told Discovery News. “We wanted people, in real time, to be able to create a landscape and a world and have them feel that sense of creation and have it in a perspective where you can view it from multiple angles.”

Real sand was not used because it’s not good for sculpting. Instead a fake snow material took its place in the box. “It’s 99 percent water and a non-toxic polymer for the other one percent,” said DDT.

Anticlockwise said they want to continue developing the Animated Sandbox. New features are on the way that will make the world come to life even more. While DDT was tight-lipped about future features, he did offer up some hints.

“We’re going to be working with sensing specific objects and having creatures interact with those objects,” he said. “We’re also going to do more advanced terrain mapping with craters and volcanoes, so when you sculpt a crater, it will shoot lava out.”

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The Animated Sandbox was a runaway hit during the 2013 Maker Faire. The crowds of children — often five-deep — that lined its perimeter weren’t the only ones who took notice. Anticlockwise’s project was awarded a Maker’s Choice ribbon in the educational division for the Animated Sandbox’s ability to engage children in lessons on geography and environmental change. Check out a video of the prototype here.

Credit: Nic Halverson