Students + Campus

The techiest playground in school: UCLA’s Technology Sandbox

Where disparate disciplines like computer science, urban planning and Near Eastern languages and cultures collide into creative scholarship

UCLA Technology Sandbox

Yoh Kawano (left) and Dave Shepard (second from right) help to brainstorm a problem in the Technology Sandbox, which houses teams engaged in cutting-edge digital research.

Math Sciences 4328 looks like something out of a “Mission Impossible” set. Getting past the red double doors, for example, requires a high-security hand scan, granting 24-hour access to select researchers from dozens of disciplines: computer science, urban planning, Near Eastern languages and cultures, dentistry, to name a few.

What do they all have in common?

Almost nothing. And that’s the point.

It’s called the Technology Sandbox, arguably the most collaborative space on campus, where visionary ideas for major digital projects become reality. It houses anywhere from 10 to 15 projects at any given time, each averaging a team of two to five members.

Todd Presner’s highly acclaimed Hypercities is one of the projects that grows in the Technology Sandbox. Led by this professor of Germanic languages and literature, digital humanities and comparative literature, Hypercities’ interactive platform lets users travel back in time and explore the historical layers of such cities as Berlin, Rome and Los Angeles.

To create this interactive, hypermedia environment, you need historians, cultural experts, architects and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) experts.

The sandbox is the only space on campus built to foster this kind of … “Frankenresearch.” It was initiated in 2002 under the leadership of Marsha Smith, who was director of Academic Technology Services at the time.

“It’s based on the idea that allowing a common area for people across disciplines to work together is really powerful,” said Warren Mori, a professor of engineering, physics and astronomy as well as director of the Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE), which runs the facility.

Clusters form throughout the UCLA Technology Sandbox as research teams overhear discussions and help each other.
Clusters form throughout the sandbox as research teams overhear discussions and help each other.

“As faculty put together significant digital projects, it quickly became apparent that housing any one large-scale team in a single department would be difficult when there were students and researchers from a broad mix of departments and schools and divisions involved,” explained Lisa Snyder, an IDRE researcher and program analyst who works in the space. “IDRE stepped in to fill that gap.”

“You want people to be sitting next to each other, talking and bouncing ideas off one another,” said Mori, who believes strongly in positioning UCLA as a leader in digital research and education. “The more you can do that — bring people together — the better. You really do see people across projects working together and having conversations beyond their own project. It’s breaking down barriers.”

It’s the home of Diane Favro’s Digital Roman Forum, which uses real-time technology to model the heart of ancient Rome. Viewers can move in and through buildings, experience different lighting conditions and even hear conversations in Latin. That took collaborations from 3-D modelers, classics students, arts and architecture researchers, and faculty from the School of Theater, Film and Television — all meeting in the sandbox.

Other projects that began here include the Humanities Virtual Worlds Consortium, which provides an online platform for gaming environments to be used in teaching and research, as well as John Dagenais’ reconstructed model of the Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The facility itself isn’t highly publicized. For being so tech-forward, it doesn’t have much of a website. In the past, researchers have learned about the Technology Sandbox through word of mouth and then quietly submitted proposals for their projects to join the space.

Projects are chosen by the IDRE executive committee, roughly 20 faculty members who can recognize a novel idea when they see one or can redirect researchers to groups who have done similar work in the past. Once a project is accepted, researchers are given 24-hour access to meeting space in the sandbox, sophisticated work stations and, perhaps best of all, a roomful of like minds who thrive on open dialogue and problem-solving.

“We’re looking for faculty-led digital research projects that are multidisciplinary in nature that can play off the strengths of the sandbox” said Snyder. “I’m very interested in hearing from faculty who are looking for a home for their multidisciplinary research projects or looking for help. And we’re very interested in hearing from students who might want to work on such projects.”

“This was one of the greatest things that happened to me in grad school,” said Dave Shepard, who has worked on Hypercities in the sandbox for the past several years. He completed his doctoral degree at UCLA, then continued his work here as a visiting professor. “You start working with people who like what they’re doing; you have regular hours, a place to collaborate... it honestly helped me get through grad school. I even mentioned the sandbox crew in my dissertation acknowledgments,” he said, laughing.

Shepard pays it forward with “Dave’s Corner,” a weekly meeting he runs for fun and some extracurricular learning. Anyone in the sandbox is invited to join in.

“We try to build something and do something fun, but we’re also learning something.” Recently, attendees have been working on automated browser testing.

“One of the best things about the sandbox is that there is a sense of community with people who are working on projects here,” Snyder said. “They do tend to overlap or at least have similarities, so that when David writes an amazing piece of code, someone can go, ‘Wait a minute — I can use that on my project!’ To the extent that we’re all sharing, all talking, all helping solutions come to the forefront … it’s very cool.”

“We encourage not only collaboration between teammates but collaborative thinking,” said Yoh Kawano, UCLA’s GIS coordinator who also works in the sandbox. “Everybody here is involved in the actual brainstorming and creative process.”

One newer project is the Los Angeles County Urban Metabolism Project, which maps out almost 10 years of DWP data on electricity usage in Los Angeles, block by block. Run by the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, it essentially asks, “Who’s hogging up all the electricity?” This kind of data, with large-scale computational needs, is perfect for the sandbox, Kawano said. They hope to launch an interactive website by this summer.

“The faculty [who have used the sandbox] are very happy,” said Mori. “For some faculty, it’s been critical to the success of their research projects and grants. … It’s an example of what we should do more of.”

For more information on how to submit proposals for projects or get involved in the Technology Sandbox, contact

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