MIT Slows Speed Of Light (And In The Game)

Don't worry. It doesn't always look like this.

One of the more disappointing revelations I’ve had to grapple with as I’ve grown up is that the speed of light doesn’t actually work like it does in Star Wars. Not only that, it’s actually kind of confusing. Fortunately, this crazy new indie developer calling itself “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology” has distilled general relativity into an oddball adventure about a spirit who must slow the speed of light to reach the afterlife called, er, A Slower Speed of Light. Seriously! It looks kind of completely wild, though. Hurl yourself past the break at speeds that defy human physical limits to watch a dev diary explaining the whole project. Or just click on some things. That also works.

Normally, this would be the part where I’d tell you how it plays, but – due to a “known” bug MIT Game Lab is currently ironing out – it insta-crashes on my machine after the opening story bits. There are, however, some other interesting things to know about A Slower Speed of Light, so let’s look at those.

“A custom-built, open-source relativistic graphics engine allows the speed of light in the game to approach the player’s own maximum walking speed. Visual effects of special relativity gradually become apparent to the player, increasing the challenge of gameplay. These effects, rendered in realtime to vertex accuracy, include the Doppler effect; the searchlight effect; time dilation; Lorentz transformation; and the runtime effect.”

Admittedly, I’m not well-versed enough in, you know, quantum physics to tell whether or not it simulates those effects accurately, but this could still be quite the thing. I mean, it’s open source, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when other developers start tinkering with it. For now, though, you can play MIT’s game right this very second. And then, before you know it, you’ll be ready to build a real-life warp drive. That goes double if you’re a Wookie.


  1. Zanchito says:

    Sounds mighty interesting! Trying this as soon as I get home.

  2. Bennus says:

    (psst relativity is actually classical rather than quantum, but anyways)

    I like these public outreach projects and using a naturally interactive medium to do it is one of the best ways. Relativistic psychedelica to 11!

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      particlese says:

      (I hoped he said it that way for an extra level of humor and/or to make physicists cringe…)

      After seeing this video and a few others* back in 2005 (World Year of Physics), I thought it could be awesome if someone made a game like this (perhaps with less MIDI), so I am super excited to see MIT taking on the job, and open-sourcedly, no less!

      Thanks for reporting on this, Nathan!

      *Edit: See Constantine Lisiy’s post below.

  3. Mordsung says:

    Light automatically slows down when entering anything other than a vacuum.

    You can actually have a “light boom”, the photon equivalent to a sonic boom, when light is moving faster through a substance than it usually would (but no faster than the speed of light in a vacuum).

    When a light boom happens, it creates a lovely blue glow.

    Scientists also have “stopped light” before. The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the dude who figured out how to capture a photon and the guy who figured out how to trap an ion.

    Capturing a photon involves two mirrors cooled to nearly absolute zero, turning them into “super mirrors”. So, effectively, they make the light bounce back and forth so perfectly that it can’t escape.

    • Biscuitry says:

      The speed at which light propagates slows down, yes, but this is different from the actual speed of light, which is constant. It just appears slower in a non-vacuum because the photons are being continuously absorbed and re-emitted by atoms in whatever substance they’re in.

    • njursten says:

      Hm, isn’t a laser more or less creating a “light boom”?

      OK, maybe not, as I assume the photons are emitted with a delay, so it would just be close to being one.

      • Mr. Mister says:

        Nah, a laser just emmits synchronised photons (as in, they are in phase).

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        link to

        To quote the Atomic Rockets page, If you see the blue Cherenkov glow around an object IN THE AIR (not at the bottom of a swimming pool reactor), you’d better be viewing it through several inches of lead glass or you have already taken a lethal dose, it is far too late to do anything about it, you are already dead. This comes under the heading of “not treating radiation with the respect it deserves.”

        • godwin says:

          Kind of off topic, but I think it’s just better to use quotation marks when quoting something, because I think you’d forgotten to close your italics marker there.

        • ColOfNature says:

          Also a bit off topic, but my favourite story about (not) treating radiation with the respect it deserves can be found in three paragraphs on this page starting where it says “While Taylor was waiting…”

    • KDR_11k says:

      So now we have stopped light. We just need a bit more power and a k-bot to fire our new Annihilator at.

    • orange says:

      Actually that ‘light boom’ (called Cherenkov radiation) is produced when a particle travels faster than the speed of light in a particular medium. It’s only in a vacuum that nothing can be faster than the speed of light ‘c’.

  4. tikey says:

    I don’t have audio at work, so I watched the video and didn’t understand anything.

    Looks like something that’d go well with a Mars Volta song though.

  5. MichaelPalin says:

    Don’t forget the RPS effect: a site that RPS links to becomes slower as the number of readers increases, :P

    • niebie says:

      But what was the maximal speed of site in the first place? It’s still quite fast for me, so I guess it’s relative…

  6. frightlever says:

    MIT? Sure, I’ve heard of those guys. They wrote Scratch.

  7. hjd_uk says:

    Ive so wanted to create a game with relativistic effects in it – was thinking of a space sim but, anyway: red-shift me interested.

    And quantum-mechanics is pretty much the opposite spectrum of physics, id brush up on astro-physics to get your head around these concepts.

  8. pupsikaso says:

    Cool, that looks very interesting. And what better way to explore what things look like when you’re travelling at the speed of light than through games?

  9. James J. Kilroy says:

    I would love to see this or something like it in schools. I’ve tutored many students that can mathematically understand relativity, but don’t really grasp the implications.

    • Zanchito says:

      This. The potential of gaming for teaching history, science, economy… is astounding and not exploited at all.

  10. mikmanner says:

    This game made my brain feel fuzzy

  11. AbyssUK says:

    I download it but the file was/wasen’t there.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Try moving towards it at a significant fraction of c.

    • Mr. Mister says:

      Servers went down, but now they redirect you to Google’s snapshot of their page… original solution.

  12. Mr. Mister says:

    Is the speed of light slow enough to require me to wear a lead helmet when moving towards a light bulb?

  13. RC-1290'Dreadnought' says:

    It’s a shame they separated the gameplay and the explanation. You only really see the things they talk about in practice, right before you end the game. And the explanation is given after the end of the game, so you then first have to spend 3 minutes collecting all orbs, and remember not to pick up the last one, to prevent the game from ending.

    It almost feels as if they don’t want you to experiment with the system for more than 30 seconds.

  14. c2leader says:

    site does not work for me :(

  15. Calabi says:

    This sounds seriously cool. Looks like there servers may be getting hammered though.

  16. tomeoftom says:

    Alex Austin a.k.a. Cryptic Sea made a tiny version of this for the 7DFPS challenge.

  17. S Jay says:

    Is this a LCD trip simulator?

    Edit: in fact I intended LSD, but I think it is an interesting pun now.

    • dubusadus says:

      It works a lot better as a motion sickness simulator. Bleargh, great concept and all but holy cow, it was all those long roadtrips on school buses all over again.

      Tangentially, it reminds me more of a really heavy marijuana high than acid. All the pretty colors are just that jam/cover band’s superficial attempt at being Pink Floyd. They don’t understand that it’s more about how the prism reveals the spectrum and not so much about the pretty rainbow colors. The sober you thinks it’s hallucinations but you should know it’s really just you.

      PS Motion sickness fucks you up real good, ugh

      • dE says:

        I second the Motion Sickness comment. And that was just from the Video.

        • CountVlad says:

          I third that. I’ve been playing games for many years now and that’s the first one to make me feel slightly queezy. I don’t even get seasick!

  18. Constantine Lisiy says:

    The effects seen are explained here in some detail

  19. Synesthesia says:

    I have an idea! Let’s give it to the guy who did Mie Gakure and then all have brain embolisms.

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  21. SighmanSays says:

    Great job MIT. Now make it multiplayer. >:)