CHI 2018

Tangible Landscape: A Hands-on Method for Teaching Terrain Analysis

Garrett C. Millar, Payam Tabrizian, Anna Petrasova, Vaclav Petras, Brendan Harmon, Helena Mitasova, Ross K. Meentemeyer

Embodied Interaction

  • Embodied cognition: a link between perception & action
  • Feeling, action, & thought are functionally integral to cognition

Spatial Education

  • Spatially-focused curricula = improved student success
  • Difficult for students to visualize complex landscape processes
  • Limits students’ success in geoscience classrooms
  • Why is this?

Teaching Methods for Terrain Analysis:

in-situ surveying drawing contour maps building physical models

Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs)

  • Inflexible in use, and inadequate for users to perceive & process spatial information
  • Limit ways geospatial data can be represented
  • Solution?

Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs)

  • Offer more natural & intuitive mode of interaction
  • Allow users to cognitively grasp & physically manipulate 3D data
  • Connect intention, thought, action, & feedback
  • Help students better explore, model, visualize, & think about complex landscape processes

Tangible Landscape:

A tangible user interface powered by open source GIS

Tangible Landscape: Design & Concept

With Tangible Landscape you can hold a GIS in your hands - feeling the shape of the earth, sculpting its topography, and directing the flow of water.


Students can physically interact with digital models and simulations by:

sculpting surfaces (hands) carving surfaces (knife) placing waypoints (markers) drawing walking routes (laser) establishing viewpoints (marker) planting vegetation (felt)

Tangible Lessons

  1. Water flow: flowpath, channeling, & ponding
  2. Landforms: required participants to build & identify landforms
  3. Cut & fill: participants changes landscapes based on provided contours

Water Flow


Water Flow


Water Flow




Cut & Fill


Cut & Fill


Pilot Study:

Teaching Landscape Form & Processes

Research Objectives

  • Test the effectiveness of a hands-on method for teaching spatial concepts using Tangible Landscape by:
    • testing students’ acquisition & transfer of knowledge
    • examining students’ ratings of the system’s usability & user experience


  • Three, one-week sessions
    • Contained tangible lessons for teaching fundamentals of grading, geomorphology, & hydrology
    • Session format:
      1. paper-based pretest
      2. introduction explaining the lesson content
      3. tangible lessons
      4. paper-based posttest


  • 16 graduate students from a Landform, Grading, & Site Systems course
  • Age ranges:
    • 18-24 (N = 10)
    • 25-34 (N = 5)
    • 35-44 (N = 1)
  • Voluntary participation during class time
  • Divided into pairs based on preference

Interaction, feedback, & example solutions

Materials & Scoring

  • Topographic Map Assessment (TMA)
  • Tangible Lesson Assessments
  • User Experience Survey

Topographic Map Assessment (TMA)

(Newcombe et al., 2015)

Pretest Tangible Lesson Posttest

Assessed students’ acquisition & transfer of spatial skills

Tangible Lesson Assessments

Landforms Assessment

Pretest Tangible Lesson Posttest

Measured student’s knowledge specific to content in the landforms tangible lesson

Tangible Lesson Assessments

Cut & Fill Assessment

Pretest Tangible Lesson Posttest

Measured student’s knowledge specific to content in the cut & fill tangible lesson

User Experience Survey

(Ras et al., 2012)

  • Examined how students perceived and interacted with Tangible Landscape, & how they collaborated to solve a problem
  • Constructs:
    • Performance expectancy
    • Pragmatic quality:
      • physical objects (wooden carving tools, physical landscape model)
      • visual objects (projection, digital feedback)
    • Effort expectancy
    • User experience


Knowledge Building: Tangible Lessons

Individual Scores Mean Scores


Knowledge Building: TMA

Individual Scores Mean Scores


User Experience

  • All items rated above the neutral value of 4 (out of 7)
  • Most advantageous aspects of Tangible Landscape?
    • ability to explore various solutions for the given problems (e.g., water flow, landforms, cut and fill)
    • physical objects allowed students to change parameters (e.g., location of solution points) very quickly
    • projected visual feedback helped them better understand the effects of changing those parameters


  • Preliminary evidence for Tangible Landscape supporting improved user experience and marginal, task-specific knowledge building
  • Knowledge building:
    • Ability to directly feel, grasp, and manipulate the various tangible materials
  • User Experience:
    • Students can try, see and feel, and directly experience multiple variations of a given solution


Garrett C. Millar

PhD Student

Geospatial Analytics

Payam Tabrizian

PhD Student

College of Design

Anna Petrasova

Postdoctoral Scholar

Center for Geospatial Analytics

Vaclav Petras

PhD Candidate

Geospatial Analytics

Brendan Harmon

Assistant Professor

Landscape Architecture
Louisiana State University

Helena Mitasova

Associate Director of Geovisualization

Center for Geospatial Analytics

Ross K. Meentemeyer


Center for Geospatial Analytics


We would like to thank Carla Delcambre of the Landscape Architecture department at North Carolina State University for working with us to implement this study in her course. We also thank the Landscape Architecture graduate students for participating in the study.

Open Source