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This sandbox lets you terraform planets with your bare hands

A new installation at London’s V&A Museum invites visitors to move mountains–with some help from AI.

The design studio Tellart wants to turn you into a god.

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The studio’s Terraform Table lets you create planetary landscapes in a sandbox that’s rigged with plenty of tech, including digital projections, artificial intelligence, and satellite imagery. The table, which debuted on May 12 at the V&A Museum’s new exhibit, The Future Starts Here, invites visitors to dig in and start terraforming.

The idea builds on a 2012 UC Davis project that allowed users to manipulate sand with their hands and see an instant elevation map projected over the resulting topography. In fact, Tellart designer Luca Zander says over email that the Terraform Table is based on public software that draws heavily from UC Davis’s original code. However, Tellart modified the code significantly for this project, incorporating artificial intelligence to take the original tech to the next level. Instead of just showing simple elevation lines, an AI system will project complex, natural-looking texture mapping that makes the sand look like an Earth-like planet from space.

“The algorithm for the Terraform Table was trained with thousands of real satellite Earth images and corresponding elevation data [using machine learning],” Zander says. “Over time, it learned to correlate the many different physical shapes of land and the appearance of those landforms from orbit.”

The algorithm takes the elevation data captured in real time with a depth-sensing camera system and compares it to what it knows from the training data.  “Using its ‘own’ interpretation of real satellite Earth imagery, the software selects bits and pieces from places all around the world to create these images,” Zander explains. The resulting synthetic projection is actually made from hundreds of bits and pieces pulled from places like California, the Persian Gulf, or the coast of Japan.

For Zander, the importance of the Terraform Table is not so much the ingenious use of AI to generate these landscapes in real time but its didactic value. “It inspires contemplation and debate about whether humans should use technology to transform other celestial bodies, like the Moon or Mars, into human habitats,” he says. Do we have the right to use our technology to transform other planets as we did with Earth? If you’re in London before November 4 and have 16 quid to spend, you can ponder that question at the V&A.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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