What is Giants in the Sky?

Giants in the sky is a Tangible User Interface (TUI) that explores the role of mass and gravity in the life and death of exosolar systems. With the use of various tangibles with different physical attributes, this TUI aims to teach basic concepts of astronomy in science museums. These tangibles allow users to create and manipulate digital celestial objects in a sandbox simulation.

The project is being developed by Pedro Arevalo, with Dr. Brian Magerko as thesis advisor.


The primary goal of the installation is to offer middle school aged museum-goers short but enriching learning sessions. As an informal learning experience, the installation will attempt to sparkle interest about astronomy in users by the means of interactions that may last 3 to 5 minutes. Additionally, scientific accuracy guides the creation of all interactions in the installation.

The Technology Behind the Simulation

Giants in the Sky is being developed in Java using Processing. To integrate tangibles into the simulation I am using the TUIO API for Processing, as well as reacTIVision, a computer vision framework that tracks fiducial markers.

Learning Objectives

The installation’s learning objectives were created based on the Gwinnett County standards of science. These standards serve as a theoretical starting point but are not strictly followed to allow a better adaptation to different contexts. The learning objectives are:

  • Understand the concept of mass.
  • Understand the lifecycle of stars.
  • Understand the concept of gravity and its role in the life of exosolar systems.


To convey the relation between mass and gravity, prototypes of tangibles with different physical attributes were 3D printed. The physical attributes of the tangibles serve as metaphors to the real life characteristics of the celestial objects. For instance, low mass stars are small (compared to other stars) red, lightweight spheres, and gas giants are big (compared to normal planets), soft spheres.

Final Product

The final design will feature a Tangible User Interface (TUI) that explores how gravity and mass influence stars and exosolar systems. All interaction between objects will be based on real science, which will be made available to the user with the use of a special telescope tangible.

The sandbox simulation will allow users to stamp four different celestial objects:

  • Low Mass Stars.
  • Medium Mass Stars.
  • High Mass Stars.
  • Black Holes.

Additionally, a new tangible to support short term interactions will be created. This tangible will allow users to create entire star systems with only one stamp, presenting them with various possible system combinations that normally would take a longer time spawn to create.


The mission of the project is to design an astronomy simulation that engages users in an informal learning experience. To ensure these interactions are as scientifically accurate and transparent as possible, various resources have been used.

While there are a great deal of learning theories and methodologies that can be used to guide the design process of TUIs to promote learning, Papert’s Constructionism provides a unique framework that takes advantage of collaborative experiences that involve creation to generate knowledge.

The Science Behind the Simulation

Several sources have been used to support the accuracy of the simulation. The Nasa webpage has been of great help on finding quality resources to define space phenomena such as Planetary Nebulae and Neutron Stars. In terms of interactions between celestial bodies, a good deal of the science background has been gathered from Crash Course Astronomy series videos as well as Georgia Tech's Astronomy webpage resources.

Professional Involvement

In order to ensure an optimal learning experience I am consulting Dr. James Sowell from the Georgia Tech School of Physics. His advise has been critical to enrich the accuracy of the interactions and my understanding on:

User Studies

The first user study of Giants in the Sky was performed during the GVU Spring Research Showcase of 2016. During the showcase various people used the installation and offered their feedback. Additionally, notes were taken whenever users found an issue with the simulation or encountered obstacles. As a result I was able to identify various areas where the simulation could be improved. The following were the main observations:

  • The number of stars in the system need to be limited.
  • Users would like prompts that help them find interesting interactions between celestial objects.
  • Some interactions were missing. Users asked why the collision of two black holes did not produce any interaction.
  • Users want a way to learn more and explore the characteristics of celestial objects on the table.

As of December 2016 most of these points have been addressed in new iterations of the project. Further user studies are scheduled for Spring 2017 involving testers from the target ages. Also, Giants in the Sky will be tested in a museum environment (TBA) in the city of Atlanta.

Existing Projects

Different educational technologies have demonstrated to support astronomy education. Among the most relevant is Starry Night Backyard, which allows users to explore space phenomena and celestial objects from different viewpoints. Universe Sandbox 2 offers a unique simulation that gives the user the unique ability of creating and destroying planets and stars. Also, the user is able to change the characteristics of all celestial objects and observe the outcomes.

Other examples include: Yamashita and Hirose (2007), Agrawal and Sorathia(2013), and Chen, Yang, Shen and Jeng (2007).

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