Video game technology has aided researchers in creating realistic 3-D battlespace maps using a simple sand box.

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.

Already, he said, it appears that the 3-D projections could help assist with language and communication barriers when Marines and soldiers train third-party nationals in their home countries.

"If you project the plan with the real map, everyone gets it," Amburn said. "You look at a map of their village and you show it to them and they get it."

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. And the platform and map technology can also be customized to serve the spectrum of requirements, from tide tables for the Navy to firefighting models for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Amburn said West Point has asked for the system, and officials at The Basic School are evaluating the system to determine usefulness and pinpoint future requirements that the Office of Naval Research will then develop. Research on the system will continue for at least the next nine months, Amburn said, with new features rolled out every month or so.