• Screen capture of the time dilation effect in OpenRelativity.

    Image: Zachary Sherin

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  • Screen capture of the IR/UV spectrum effect in OpenRelativity.

    Image: Zachary Sherin

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Playing with Einstein

MIT Game Lab releases OpenRelativity, a game-development tool to help developers and educators experiment with the effects of special relativity.

Students and researchers of the MIT Game Lab have released an open-source toolkit to simulate the visual effects of special relativity in games and graphics applications. Intended for game developers, educators and anyone interested in physics, OpenRelativity can help people create, test and share experiments to explore the effects of special relativity. By releasing the tool set as an open-source code library, interested developers can also create and distribute new games or simulations that feature the effects of traveling near the speed of light.

Why OpenRelativity?

Education can be assisted through the use of games and other interactive media, especially for topics that frequently are hard to understand and visualize. "The MIT Game Lab is built around this idea that play is extremely powerful, and one thing games are good at is giving people an intuitive grasp of complex scientific ideas," says Philip Tan, creative director of the MIT Game Lab. The toolset can help educators create new demonstrations to provide an intuitive, useful understanding of a dense and complex topic. At the same time, these tools make the visually stunning effects of traveling near the speed of light available to game developers, increasing awareness about the topic to people who may have never encountered it.

OpenRelativity was developed as a tool to create A Slower Speed of Light, a game developed in conjunction with Gerd Kortemeyer, associate professor of physics education at Michigan State University (MSU), while he was a visiting professor at MIT. Kortemeyer says that he wanted to develop the game and tool in order to ask students, “What would it be like if relativity was part of your everyday life?"

Preliminary development occurred at Michigan State with his students. "What we developed at MSU was the foundation, a proof-of-concept, a functioning prototype,” Kortemeyer says. “At MIT, we were able to take the next step, developing a full-featured game and incorporating even more physics." MIT undergraduates Zach Sherin and Ryan Cheu worked at the MIT Game Lab to adapt the MSU-developed technology for the Unity development environment. By being integrated into a common and well-supported game development environment such as Unity, OpenRelativity will allow a greater number of people access to a field that is often regarded as difficult to comprehend.

How it works

As Kortemeyer says, "The reason we do not experience relativity in everyday life is that light is so fast.” So when working with his students on the game and tool he asked, “Well, what if you just slow it down?" Both OpenRelativity and A Slower Speed of Light establish a counterfactual relationship between the game and the real world by making the speed of light variable, and more importantly, slow light down to the point of being the speed of walking. This allows the player to see the effects of special relativity at a scale closer to their experienced reality.

These effects, rendered in realtime to vertex accuracy, include the Doppler effect (red- and blue-shifting of visible light, and the shifting of infrared and ultraviolet light into the visible spectrum); the searchlight effect (increased brightness in the direction of travel); time dilation (differences in the perceived passage of time from the player and the outside world); Lorentz transformation (warping of space at near-light speeds); and the runtime effect (the ability to see objects as they were in the past, due to the travel time of light). By playing and making games using these visual effects in a realistic manner, Kordemeyer hopes "that people develop an intuition about relativity."

People who use OpenRelativity in their projects are encouraged to be part of a community of physics explorers. Tan says he hopes that creators who use OpenRelativity “let us know about their projects so we can let other people who are interested in OpenRelativity find out about their projects.”

A Slower Speed of Light was recently included in the Research and Experimental Games Festival at Foundations of Digital Games 2013 held in Greece. A new beta has been released for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux which should address hardware issues some players have experienced.

The MIT Game Lab brings together scholars, creators and technologists to teach, conduct research and develop new approaches to applied game design and construction. Ranked by The Princeton Review as one of the top 10 schools to study video game design in North America, the MIT Game Lab maintains MIT’s role as a leader in the study, design and development of games. The MIT Game Lab’s goal is to explore, educate and engage the public by creating groundbreaking games, interactive online courses and new applications to real world challenges.

Inquiries about the MIT Game Lab or OpenRelativity can be directed to Andrew Whitacre, Communications Director, Comparative Media Studies and MIT Game Lab

Topics: Arts, Comparative Media Studies/Writing, Game design, Game Lab, Video games

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