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SYFY WIRE video games

Video game reveals the psychedelic wonderland you’d see if the speed of light slowed down

You'd see trippy things if the speed of light was slower, like in the video game A Slower Speed of Light.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Slower Speed of Light PRESS

Whoever said video games fry your brain hasn’t played A Slower Speed of Light.

The game emerged from the curiosity of scientists wondering what would happen if you put the brakes on light speed, which is why they created a video game in which exactly that happens (so their brains were obviously not fried). It's like Alice in Wonderland in a parallel universe. Players see bizarre distortions of things such as the effects of changing color and brightness, even the lengths of objects changing in weird and trippy ways. 

Nothing in the universe is faster than light. At around 186,000 miles per second, which the human body could never handle, it rockets through the vacuum of space. But what if we could move at the speed of light? That hypothetical question is answered through A Slower Speed of Light, developed by Gerd Kortemeyer of ETH Zurich and scientists at the MIT Game Lab. We can find out what it would be like to move at the speed of light if light slows down to our speed.

Strange things happen in A Slower Speed of Light because of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which explains the effect of speed on mass, time, and space.

“To demonstrate special relativity, you can simulate a world where relative speeds are very high, or a world where the speed of light is slow,” Kortemeyer told SYFY WIRE. “The higher the ratio of relative speed to the speed of light, the more noticeable the effects of special relativity.”

This ratio is known as beta. After dividing relative speed by the speed of light, you end up with a number that is the fraction of the speed of light. Beta becomes higher in hypothetical worlds where light moves at high or low extremes. Special relativity also explains why length contraction happens, in which objects moving near the speed of light don’t just appear shorter, but actually are. Being able to see an object means the light has traveled to your eyes, which is why older galaxies weren't visible for eons — light has to trek to Earth over billions of years.

Liz Slower Speed of Light PRESS

Light never actually gets any slower unless it is passing through a material that holds it back in some way. To give you an idea of just how slow we are, the fastest a human has ever traveled is only 0.0037% the speed of light, and that’s in a launching spacecraft. In a phenomenon known as time dilation, time would slow down for humans (theoretically) moving at the speed of light. For any of us to move at the speed of light is impossible because it would require an infinite amount of energy.

You yourself won’t experience time dilation by playing Kortemeyer’s game, but the character you are playing as will, and you see through their eyes. The thing is that you probably won’t notice it. A screen pops up at the end to tell you how much less time has passed than you might think.

But why are things moving toward you at the speed of light shorter but then start to appear longer? Light traveling from the back of an object takes longer to reach you than that coming from the front of the same object, just like light from distant galaxies takes more time to reach Earth than those right in front of us. Meaning, if an object is moving toward you, you’re seeing the back of the object as it was slightly further in the past than the front. You will always see the back of the object further in the past than the front. The effect this has is called runtime effect.

“Putting that together, you see the back of the object when it was still further away than the front, which makes the object appear longer,” Kortemeyer said. “Relativity and runtime effect partly cancel out each other for what you see, but runtime effect ‘wins’.”

More special effects happen because of special relativity. When the motion of your character in the game is close to the speed of light, you can perceive the relativistic Doppler effect. Light and sound are forms of energy that move in waves. If light is traveling between two objects, and at least one is moving, the wavelength seems to change, such as a headlights growing brighter. That is the searchlight effect. As your character moves towards photons, or particles of light, they move into more photons as they approach a source of light, so it brightens onscreen.

“It’s the same as running in the rain,” said Kortemeyer. “When you run in the rain, your front gets wetter than your back, since you pick up more raindrops as you run into them. Same with photons.”

Einstein probably would have probably been entertained by this game for hours. So much for video games frying or melting or otherwise destroying your brain.