MIT's Open Relativity to Pave Way for More Trippy Games

STORY BY Artem Kaznatcheev

Published: May 28, 2013

MIT's Game Lab releases an open source engine for building games and simulations that accurately capture the paradoxical effects of special relativity.

Modern physics is notorious for its counter-intuitive or “paradoxical” theories. Although special relativity is now a standard part of the college physics curriculum and extremely well studied by working physicists, it still baffles many netizens. It is just too mind boggling that if I am moving forward at some velocity v with respect to the ground and throw a ball forward at a velocity u then the ball isn't moving at a velocity v + u with respect to the ground, but slightly slower. Of course, when we are dealing with speeds achieved by humans, v + u is such an accurate estimate of the real velocity that we don't need to account for relativistic corrections. This has been the curse for physicists, a person simply can't experience relativistic effects on their own, or can they?

Last fall, MIT's Game Lab set out to overcome this limitation by building a 3D game where you could accurately experience what the world would look like if the speed of light wasn't 299,792,458 meters-per-second, but something closer to walking speed. In “A Slower Speed of Light”, you can play as a villager in a strange world where every time you collect a magic orb, the speed of light decreases slightly and thus your walking speed more closely approximates it; the relativistic distortions become more apparent and trippy! When you grab the 100th orb, you slow-down light-speed to match your own, and briefly experience what lightshow a photon would see if a photon could see light.

I am a physics and computer nerd, so the game kept me occupied for hours, but I fear that for most it simply lacked objective. It would be much more useful if the physics engine underlying this game could be incorporated into more popular games like Modern Warfare (although I would prefer Mario Kart) to secretly build our intuition about relativity as we play. Today, the MIT Game Lab made this possible by publicly releasing the Open Relativity graphics and physics engine on GitHub for all programmers to use! Now everybody – not just theoretical physicists – can tweak the knobs and dials of the fundamental constants of our universe. I can't wait until I can whip around corners at relativistic speeds in a physically realistic Mario Kart, but I suspect that aiming those green Koopa shells will be even harder.

Other Stories by Artem Kaznatcheev
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