Weekend Diversion: The First Relativistic Video Game!

“There is no such thing as magic, supernatural, miracle; only something that's still beyond logic of the observer.” -Toba Beta

It might be hard to believe, but science tells us truths about the Universe that we might never have intuited or philosophized about if the Universe itself didn't reveal them to us through investigation. Bap Kennedy alludes to this in one of my favorite songs by him,

Mostly Water,

and this is certainly true of Einstein's relativity, which details just how the Universe behaves when we move close to the speed of light. This is notoriously difficult to visualize or gain an intuition about.

Image credit: Curt Renshaw, Tele-Consultants, Inc.

Lengths contract in the direction of motion, time dilates, light red-and-blueshifts, things become oddly bright-or-dim dependent on where they are relative to your location and velocity.

In other words, things are very different from your common experiences in the world, all according to the simple straightforward laws set forth by Einstein's theory of special relativity.

Some of the weird things are extremely counterintuitive; moving from rest close to the speed of light causes an object to appear farther away, while moving away from the object causes it to appear closer! Because this only has noticeable effects close to the speed of light, this is really difficult to relate to, and is certainly outside of our common experience.

But one remarkable project aims to change that, and does such an awesome job that I had to share it with you.

Image credit: A slower speed of light, from the MIT game lab.

Say hello to the MIT Game Lab's latest project: A Slower Speed of Light, which allows you to collect orbs by moving around through a collect-'em-style game. Only, with each orb you collect, the speed of light slows down. And that's where things get freaky.

The colors start to change, distances start to appear counterintuitive, and, well, you're challenged to develop an intuition for moving at relativistic speeds, because the speed of light has slowed!

Image credit: A slower speed of light, from the MIT game lab.

When you've successfully collected all 100 orbs, you're rewarded with the red/blueshifts turned off, and you merely observe the effects of the Lorentz transformations, which are still incredibly freaky!

Image credit: A slower speed of light, from the MIT game lab.

The game is difficult to control, particularly if you've got a trackpad instead of a mouse (and don't even think about playing it on a tablet/mobile device), but it's an amazing exploration.

Download the PC or Mac version, or just check it out at the MIT game lab here. It's a great download and an excellent way to spend 20 minutes or so just messing around; I'm glad I did! Hope you like it too, and have a great rest-of-your-weekend!

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I played this a few days ago and I was a bit surprised by the wacky colours - they seem to just cycle through the rainbow and back again which isn't what I would have predicted. If this is what would really happen, why? If not, then doesn't that defeat the object of making a game to illustrate the effects of relativity?

Thanks :)

By William Russell (not verified) on 11 Nov 2012 #permalink

@ William Russel, I think they are illustrating the doppler shifts. Yes, colors change at relativistic speeds.

Odd that it has taken this long for someone to think of making a game, given that Mr Tompkins in Wonderland came out more than 70 years ago.