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Create falling sand simulation

· 11 min read

Hey everyone, I've got a super cool project to share with you - a falling sand simulation.

So, I was just chilling, watching some YouTube videos, when I stumbled upon this awesome falling sand coding challenge. I thought, why not bring this magic to our SwiftIO Playground Kit? (The Swift core team is actively developing embedded Swift, and I'd like to introduce you the potential of embedded Swift programming through hands-on projects.)

Here's the plan: I use a button to spray sand and a potentiometer to control where it goes. Turn the knob, press the button, and boom! A beautiful sand scene on my tiny screen. So, I set up the kit next to my computer and dive right in.


Here's a breakdown of the development process in 7 steps:

  1. Add one sand particle
  2. Move it
  3. Add sand sprayer
  4. Create sand with the sprayer
  5. Create natural sandpiles
  6. Add more sand
  7. Add more colors

Let's go through them step by step.

1. Add one sand particle

Picture this: the screen is like a giant canvas, divided into a grid where each square represents a single particle of sand. As the sand moves, it jumps from one square to another. To keep track of these squares, I’ve organized them into a 2D array of rows and columns. A specific square is referred to as grid[rowIndex][columnIndex].

Each square in the array is labeled as either having sand (1) or being empty (0). At the start, it's all 0 because, well, there is no sand yet. So, I randomly picked a square and switched its status to 1. Then, I drew a red square on that spot to mark the initial sand particle.

Show sand particle

2. Move it

To move a sand particle downward, I just need to draw it on the square below and clear its current position. But, what if the square below isn't empty? It gets blocked and stays put.

The trick is to check the states of all squares. If a square isn't empty, I looked below to determine if the sand can move or not.

Move sand particle

Ah, the first problem emerged! While iterating and updating grid states, an error popped up. Drawing from experience, I suspected it might be an array out-of-index issue. And indeed, that's the case.

When iterating through the cells in the last row to determine movement, each one needs to reference the one below it. But alas, there are no cells below the last row! Additionally, no need to check that row, as it's already at the bottom🤨. The solution? Simply skip the last row during iteration.

3. Add sand sprayer

Let's take a break from the sand and shift our attention to the sprayer. Positioned at the top of the screen, it's set to smoothly slide left or right in response to my potentiometer twist.

To make this happen, I created a square matching the size of all other squares. This way, the first row of the grid is solely dedicated to the sprayer's movements. The potentiometer readings are mapped to the cell index, determining the sprayer's position.

Add sand sprayer

Oh, wait… sometimes the sprayer drifted back and forth 🫨.

This issue often arises when dealing with a potentiometer, as its readings can fluctuate and be mapped to different values. To avoid this, I opted to take an average reading.

4. Create sand with the sprayer

Now, let's bring the sprayer and sand together. The initial random sand particle was no longer necessary. I was ready to generate sand!

To kick things off, I needed a trigger condition for sand generation. So, I introduced a button, and when pressed, sand generation began. The new sand particles would appear below the sprayer, specifically in the second row.

However, if sand particles were created endlessly while the button is held down, it could overcrowd my tiny screen. To prevent this, I added a small gap before each new sand particle.

Create sand with sprayer

As the number of sand particles increased, I noticed an illogical aspect of my sand falling mechanism. If the square below the current sand was not empty, the current sand remained still, while the sand particle below it might fall when it was its turn.

To address this, I reversed the iteration of rows in my algorithm. Thus, the sand particle below would be moved downward to clear the square in advance if possible, allowing the current particle to fall successfully.

Sand movement with different iteration order

5. Create natural sandpiles

Currently, the sand particles would stop if the squares below them were filled. As a result, they piled up vertically, which appeared unnatural. In reality, sand continues to spread to the sides of the pile instead of stacking vertically.

If the square below is not empty, it's time to examine the states of the squares to the right and left of it. To prevent the sand from moving exclusively to the left or right, I introduced some randomness to determine the direction each time.

Sand pile

And voila! The falling sand simulation is complete.

6. Add more sand

Now, it was time to elevate the visual effects.

The sprayer only added one sand particle at a time, which wasn’t particularly striking. To enhance the visual impact, I increased the number of sand particles added each time within a certain range. The squares within that range were chosen randomly.

Add more sand particle

7. Add more colors

A monochrome scene can be rather dull... I’d like to inject some colors! It's quite straightforward. Instead of just using binary values of 1 and 0, update the grid state with color values. Ta-da!

Add more colors for sand particles


Well, folks, there you have it. Below is my code.

You can find it on GitHub. Feel free to download and give it a try. Happy coding!

import SwiftIO
import MadBoard
import ST7789

// Initialize the SPI pin and the digital pins for the LCD.
let bl = DigitalOut(Id.D2)
let rst = DigitalOut(Id.D12)
let dc = DigitalOut(Id.D13)
let cs = DigitalOut(Id.D5)
let spi = SPI(Id.SPI0, speed: 30_000_000)

// Initialize the LCD using the pins above. Rotate the screen to keep the original at the upper left.
let screen = ST7789(spi: spi, cs: cs, dc: dc, rst: rst, bl: bl, rotation: .angle90)

let cursor = AnalogIn(Id.A0)
let button = DigitalIn(Id.D1)
var pressCount = 0

var sand = Sand(screen: screen, cursor: cursor)

while true {
// Add more sand particles if the button is been pressed.
if pressCount > 10 {
pressCount = 0

if {
pressCount += 1
} else {
pressCount = 0

sleep(ms: 5)

// Update the position of sand and cursor over time.
sand.update(cursor: cursor)