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'A Slower Speed of Light' turns the strangeness of near-light speed travel into a game

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MIT Game Lab shows the bizarre, nausea-inducing effects of Einstein's famous theory

A Slower Speed of Light
A Slower Speed of Light

In our day-to-day lives, we don't have much opportunity to realize just how weird the laws of physics really are. Think about it: there are known scientific phenomena that are so thoroughly alien to our everyday experience that even the most brilliant scientists and thinkers struggle to explain them with any semblance of brevity. An example of such phenomena are those which occur when objects travel at near the speed of light, as prescribed by Einstein's theory of special relativity. Just as Carl Sagan famously described these principles in an episode of Cosmos, students at MIT have brought them to life as a videogame.

A Slower Speed of Light is an experimental game from the MIT Game Lab that functions equally well as a kind of interactive learning aid. The core concept should be familiar if you paid attention in physics class: since time and space are relative, weird things happen when you approach the speed of light. First being the Doppler effect, which causes objects moving away from you to shift to the red end of the spectrum, and those moving towards you to shift blue, due to the compression and expansion of the light's wavelengths (the same principle occurs with sound when a speeding ambulance passes by). Get even closer to light speed and far more bizarre effects come into play, like time dilation (your experienced time differs from that of slower objects and people around you) and Lorentz Transformations (the distance between objects appears differently at relativistic speeds).

"Relativity is generally taught at a fairly abstract, theoretical level."

"Educators have a wide range of hands-on experiments to help students gain an intuitive understanding of physics, but relativity is generally taught at a fairly abstract, theoretical level," said Game Lab creative director Philip Tan in an email with The Verge. However, the game demonstrates its concepts through a deceptively simple item collection mechanic: every time a player collects a sphere, the speed of light (normally a constant, as per E=mc²) is artificially lowered, and the effects described above become more and more disorienting. Once all orbs are collected, the color-shifting doppler effect is removed so that time dilation and Lorentz Transformations become more apparent.

The game began with a computer simulation of Lorentz Transformations created by students under Dr. Gerd Kortemeyer, a visiting professor to MIT from the University of Michigan. A skeleton crew at MIT eventually re-built the simulation inside the Unity3D game engine. But in adjusting it for human scale and perspective, they had to take a certain degree of creative license as well, such as when shifting the player's perspective into the infrared (which human eyes are normally incapable of seeing).

"Fluctuations in color and brightness caused such intense nausea that some testers couldn't make it halfway through our game."

Some other concessions were also inevitable. "You collide into a lot of things in the game, and technically, the visual effects should change drastically with every bump," explains Tan. "The resulting fluctuations in color and brightness caused such intense nausea that some testers couldn't make it halfway through our game." The final version, thankfully, is a lot more accommodating, though still properly mind-bending.

A Slower Speed of Light is now available for free download, and MIT Game Lab plans on releasing the source code for their relativity game engine in early 2013. "We are cleaning up and documenting our code to make it easier for people to understand what is going on under the hood," says Tan. "Hopefully, students and game designers will use it to develop new games and simulations."