Tactile biomes — one grain of sand at a time

Do you remember the first time you played with sand at the beach or in a sandbox?  There was the feel of the sand — cool, damp and gritty.  With only a scoop of your hands, you created whole new worlds:  mountains, rivers, castles, creatures, and maybe your own little city with roads, tunnels and buildings.  The sand responded to your imagination.  It allowed you to explore and dream; create and build; learn through play.

Now imagine, that sand could come alive!  Imagine it could be infused with light, with motion and life.  Whole new world’s would open for learning through hands-on unscripted play.

That is the heart and soul of HoloSands, to bring sand to life, and to make learning so enticing, visitors will not want to leave.


The natural world around us has many unique habitats defined by the terrain and weather patterns of that area. From the high deserts of the American Southwest, to the tropical islands of the Pacific Ring of Fire, each region supports its own community of plants and animals that thrive there. HoloSands was created to facilitate teaching these concepts in a fun and intuitive way.

We use the word “biome” to capture this interdependent relationship between terrain, weather, flora and fauna. We currently have 11 unique biomes:

Appalachian Mountains

The Appalachian Mountain Range runs from Newfoundland in Canada all the way down to Mt. Cheaha in Alabama.  It is defined by lush hardwood forests and abundant rain, mixed with human settlement in the valleys.  HoloSands recreates this biome with forests on the higher elevations, farm lands in the valleys, and the call of birds and animals that live in these mountainous forests.

The Arctic

The Arctic is one of the harshest environments on Earth.  From frozen seas filled with floating icebergs, to desolate peaks ravaged by wind and snow, the Arctic is still beautiful in all of its wildness.  Listen closely and you will hear the call of wolves as they fight for survival, and the cries of skua as they fish along the shores of these northern climes.

California Snowmelt & Catchement Basins

We wrote a special biome for West Office (http://woed.com) to use in the Water Challenge area of the SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity (MoSAC) in Sacramento, California (https://visitmosac.org). The exhibit teaches visitors how critical California’s system of catchment basins is for catching runoff from the snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The sandbox has a solid insert at one end with two v-shaped valleys. At the lower end is a free play sand area.

Visitors are encouraged dam up the v-shaped valleys with wooden blocks of different sizes and shapes. They then use our rain circles to cause rain and snowstorms to fall on the terrain. Rain runs off immediately and gathers in the catchment basins, whereas at higher elevations snow accumulates to create thick snowpacks. Later these snowpacks slowly melt giving a constant trickle of water flowing down to the valleys below.

Carolina Lowcountry

In 2022 we created a special biome for The Sandbox Children’s Museum (https://www.thesandbox.org) in Hilton Head, South Carolina. This biome showcases the unique features of the “Lowcountry” along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina.

This area is defined by low lying coast areas with tidal marshes, pine and live oak forests, and the threat of devastating hurricanes.

Our Lowcountry biomes shows the rise and fall of daily tides (which we sped up a lot so you could see it over the course of about a minute). It also shows the destructive power of a hurricane hitting Hilton Head island. Normally when a visitor holds our “rain circle” over the sandbox, they see a small thunderstorm and a little rain. In this case however, they now control a huge swirling hurricane system. It dumps a tremendous amount of rain and blows down trees, tears up the beaches, and swamps the tidal marshes. Thankfully, after the hurricane ends, the biome begins to heal itself. The marshes dry out, the beaches return to a pristine condition, and the forests begin to recover.

Coastal City

Sea level rise is a topic many museums are interested in explaining to their visitors. Our Costal City biome is the perfect teaching tool for this topic. It allows you to sculpt out a small costal city, and then show what happens if global temperatures were to rise in half degree increments.

As you raise the global temperature, the ocean at first only rises a bit up the sandy beaches near the city. As you continue to raise the temperature, water begins to creep up near the housing areas, and eventually inundates the entire city.

You can control the global temperature using voice commands or the + and – keys on a keyboard. Museum staff can build lesson plans around this topic and give guided discussions of the topic.

Desert Southwest

The high deserts of the North American Southwest are characterized by their harsh climates; yet tenacious plants and animals find a way to live there.  You will see bare exposed rock layers on the mountains you create, while hearing roadrunners and other birds from the Sonoran desert highlands.

Deserts aren’t just about drought, though, rain is critical to sustaining life there and radically shapes the terrain.  When it rains in HoloSand’s desert, it rains hard, dumping a cloud burst in a very short time.  Just as quickly, though, the water will sink into the sand and evaporate away.

Elevation Map

While not technically a biome, our elevation map is an important educational tool.  The colors change from blue at the deepest parts of your terrain, to greens, yellows, tans and  whites at the highest peaks.  With each step up in elevation you will see a contour line showing areas of equal elevation.

You can use this to teach map reading skills and how to interpret terrain features such as ridges, valleys and canyons.

Indiana Uplands

Near the end of 2019, we had the pleasure to build a sandbox for Wonderlab Museum of Science, Health and Technology (https://wonderlab.org) in Bloomington, Indiana, for their SandScapes Augmented Reality Sandbox. The large sandbox we built for them has wheelchair access on one end, and a locking storage cabinet on the other. In keeping with their technology theme, the cage above the sandbox holding all the electronics was left uncovered so that visitors could see the tech driving the exhibit.

Museum staff really wanted to showcase the unique geological feature of the Indiana Uplands area around Bloomington. This area is dominated by a karst formation that is susceptible to water infiltration and frequent sinkhole development. The biome we created for them detects when visitors dig out “sinkholes” in the sand. It then looks for a location farther down the side of the terrain, and places a bubbling natural well there. Any rain water or river runoff that falls into the sinkhole, later flows out of the linked well downslope.

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, USGS, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KarstterrainUSGS.jpg

Pacific Northwest

In 2022 the Imagine Children’s Museum (https://www.imaginecm.org) in Everett, Washington opened a new wing of their museum. We created a special biome that captures the unique features of the Pacific Northwest for them.

This biome combines oceans, volcanoes, snowfall at higher elevations and highlights the “rain shadow” affect that determines the climate of Washington state.

A “rain shadow” occurs when moisture rich could are force up the windward side of a tall mountain. As the air rises it looses its ability to contain the moisture, and it falls out as rain. By the time clouds reach the back (leeward) side of the mountain they have lost most of their moisture. The land on the back side over time turns dry and arid.

We analyze the shape of the sand as visitors change the landscape, and we determine where the leeward side of the mountains are. Our hydrology simulation then causes those areas to dry out rapidly. On the windward side you thus see rich deep rain forests, whereas on the leeward side the terrain turns dry with minimal scrub brush and grass.

Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains are one of the most beautiful areas of the North American West.  From their snow capped peaks, to temperate forests at higher elevations, the Rockies support many species of plants and animals.  As you sculpt sand, you can create your own world of high mountains, and forest lowlands, with the sound of the wind in the background, and the cry of bald eagles, warblers and Richardson ground squirrels surrounding you.

The Ukraine

Just as the pandemic hit we were completing a sandbox for the Junior Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (https://man.gov.ua/en). They were completing renovation of an old Soviet Era exhibition center into a new children’s museum. We had just shipped a sandbox to them, and were two days away from flying over to install it, when Ukraine closed its borders due to Covid.

In a scramble, we put together a detailed set of video instructions showing how to unpack the exhibit, set it up, and how to hang the electronics cage over the sandbox. With the help of just a few video conferencing and phone calls, the staff of JASU did an amazing job installing the sandbox themselves!

In October 2020, they opened their beautiful new children’s museum, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, his wife First Lady Olena Zelensky, and the First Lady of Poland Agata Kornhauser-Duda as honored guests.

President Zelensky inaugurates HoloSands Sandbox
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the first visitor to use JASU’s new HoloSands sandbox

The biome we create for JASU focuses on the unique climate of Ukraine. The climate changes significantly as you travel from the northwest of the country to the far southeast. The northwest of the nation receives plenty of rainfall each year, whereas the farther southeast you go the dryer it becomes, This is caused by the prevailing wind patterns flowing over Europe, the Black Sea and out of the Russian Steppes. Moisture rich air from the Atlantic flows up through the Baltic Sea and over Germany and Poland. By the time it reaches northwest Ukraine it has lost enough moisture that little is left by they time you reach southeast Ukraine. Similarly, winds blowing over the cold Black Sea do not pick up much moisture, and started in the desert regions of Turkey, so they have little rain to drop on southern Ukraine. And the winds blowing in from the Russian Steppe have travelled over nothing but dry tundra for thousands of miles.

The result is that while the northwest and central area of Ukraine are the “Breadbasket of the World”, the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are much dryer and can support only different crops.

The biome we created for JASU recreates the climate of Ukraine. We transition from rich green farmlands in the northwest to dryer villages and farmlands in the southeast, with crop circles visible from the many irrigation systems.

Tropical Islands

Tropical islands are unique biomes surrounded on all sides by endless expanses of rolling ocean.  Their lush foliage mask a deadly secret, deep beneath their surfaces, lava squeezes up from the Earth’s core and spews out in violent volcanic eruptions.  HoloSands makes it easy to form your own volcanoes, and fun to then watch how lava and water interact when they clash together.

Water & Hydrology

Water is fundamental to all life on Earth.  We are blessed to have so much of it, in all of its forms: liquid, gas and solid.  Imagine if we were just a little bit closer or farther from the Sun.  All of our precious water would either boil off or freeze solid.  But we are at just such a perfect place that water can fall from the sky, give life to our plants and animals, then evaporate and return to the sky as clouds and rain.

Hydrological Cycle — Courtesy of Wikipedia — Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0

We use simple “rain circles” which allow players to create and move thunderstorms around the terrain.  Moving the rain stick higher creates a bigger thunderstorm and more rain.

Each biome has its own basic rain rate.  For instance, in the desert a lot of rain is dumped quickly on the terrain.  This creates flash floods that rush down the canyons and valleys of the desolate terrain.

Each biome has its own characteristic evaporation rate.  If you do not make it rain often enough, the rivers, ponds and lakes you created will dry up and disappear. The desert is the worst, rain evaporates almost immediately, so you can almost never form a lake or pond.  On the other hand, in the Appalachian Mountains, it is easy to sculpt out lakes, rivers and ponds and keep them filled and flowing.

We treat oceans a bit different though.  We treat them as being so large that rain storms will not make them rise, nor will any droughts you make cause them to fall.

Lava and Volcanism

In recent years volcanoes have been in the news with eruptions of lava occurring on the big island of Hawaii, on La Palma in the Canary Islands, and the massive eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai in the South Pacific.  Volcanism has shaped much of the surface of our planet, from the great Ring of Fire encircling the Pacific, to volcanoes in Iceland, Italy, Anatolia and even Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.

It is simple to build a volcano in HoloSands.  Just make a roughly volcano shaped mound, then dig a small caldera divot in the top.  We quickly detect the volcano and cause an eruption to occur with a growing pool of lava spilling over the volcano’s edge — with rumbles and explosion sounds to boot.

Our lava also interacts realistically with water. If lava enters a small lake, it can boil away all of that water. However, if it flows into the ocean, there is so much water that it cools the lava down to its freezing point, and it begins building new land out into the ocean.

Boring Technical Details

HoloSands comes with an easy to use “Docent Panel”.  It can only be accessed if you have a keyboard (which HoloSands does not need for normal operation), and can be password protected.

From the Docent Panel you can control if biomes automatically change periodically; and which ones are active in the rotation.  You can turn volcanoes on and off for each biome separately.  The interface also lets you select your active depth sensor, and align the sensor with your projector.

Whole Systems or License Just the Software

We sell complete turn key systems with sandbox, electronics, software, installation, training and on-going support, or we can license you just the software and then work with your design team to build a sandbox yourself and to specify what electronics you will need to purchase.

We also offer an “a la carte” option, where you get the basic software with just the hydrology simulation and your selection of any two (2) biomes. You can add extra biomes and other features for a small fee each. This allows you to adjust the price to stay within your budget. More biomes and features can be licensed at a later time when grants or other funds allow.


We have sandbox exhibits installed in 7 museums worldwide and 1 under development:

  • The Cook Museum of Natural Sciences (Decatur, Alabama)
  • Imagine Children’s Museum (Everett, Washington)
  • Junior Academy of Sciences Ukraine (Kyiv, Ukraine)
  • McFadden Nature Center (Donalsonville, Georgia) — currently in the planning stage
  • Monroe Science Center (Monroe, North Carolina)
  • SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity (Sacramento, California)
  • The Sandbox Children’s Museum (Hilton Head, South Carolina)
  • WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology (Bloomington, Indiana)

Learning does not have to be boring

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