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MIT Game Lab’s ‘A Slower Speed of Light’ Helps You Learn Relativity

In its opening moments, A Slower Speed of Light may seem like a straightforward gaming experience. That all changes when you start walking at light-speed.

In this first person game from MIT’s Game Lab, the player must navigate a 3D environment collecting glowing, multicolored orbs that aren’t behind, above, or beneath any serious obstacles. Sounds easy. But as you collect more orbs, your avatar’s walking speed starts approaching light-speed, and all the weird physics that come with it. Structures bend, light changes frequency until it is shifted out of the visible range, and the world itself warps.

Each orb you collect amplifies the physics. The Doppler effect, the searchlight effect, Lorentz transformations, and the run time effect become part of the world. Without the physics jargon: Things get trippy:

The two trippiest, yet very real, relativistic experiences A Slower Speed of Light will help you understand are the Doppler Effect and Lorentz transformations.

The Doppler effect is the apparent change in frequency of light or sound waves originating from a moving source. For instance, a police cruiser with a blaring siren will sound higher pitched as it’s coming towards you and lower after it passes you. This is because the sound waves traveling towards you are closer together than those hitting you when the car is driving away. It’s almost as if the waves are getting smushed in front of the oncoming car.

Speed 2x2

Lorentz transformations–named after Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz–are even weirder. They describe how observations of space and time by two different viewers are related to one another. The transformations–elucidated by Einstein–dictate that viewers moving at two different velocities will not experience the same distances, times, or even orderings of events. For instance, after spending time on the International Space Station, astronauts will have aged slightly less than if they’d been on the surface of the Earth for the same amount of Earth days.

The closer you get to the speed of light, time actually slows down and distances contract. And thanks to MIT, you get to experience all this in-game.

A Slower Speed of Light was built using OpenRelativity, a system used to simulate special relativity by altering the speed of light within a simulated environment. In the spirit of education, OpenRelativity contains an open source code that can be accessed by either the free or paid versions of the Unity engine–a system which the public can use to develop original games of their own.

Speed IP

 Screenshot explaining special relativity. Good luck!

This being an open-source project, the developers of A Slower Speed of Light are hoping that game developers will eventually integrate these systems into other games in the future. The group also hopes that this type of visualization of such abstract physical principles will have educational value. Special relatively ranks pretty high amongst the hardest concepts to grasp, so presenting it in a more than purely theoretical context could mean students could learn by experience, and not just equation-staring.

HT: MIT Game Lab

IMAGES: MIT Game Lab

VIDEO: MIT Game Lab

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