tomek sysak

A Slower Speed of Light

Imagine breakfast. Pulling your spoon to your mouth, you see it shifts colours from silver to blue. Moving away it shifts to red.

If that’s the case, fear not, you’re at a Slower Speed of Light. The video game of the same name was developed at MIT and it simulates Einstein’s theory of special relativity but with the speed of light down-shifted to about a running speed.

If you’re wondering why that’s interesting, all it takes is a look at the game. The visuals are complex. As you move, surrounding objects change colours and can even start to emit light. It’s a psychedelic experience that teaches basic - if hard to conceptualize - physical laws, while exploring deep realities about colour and light. Guess what: they’re all relative!

Gerd Kortemeyer owns the game, and is an Associate Professor of Physics Education at Michigan State University:

“There’s beauty in relativity. You could look at relativity, and say it’s weird, it’s difficult, it’s only a thing for geniuses - you know you hear all these kinds of notions of what relativity is like - but actually, relativity is a very elegant and beautiful thing. And yes, much of the beauty is in the math and that is a little bit hard to convey. But other parts, if you move them to a human level, those aspects become accessible.”

Kortemeyer was inspired in part by George Garmow’s Mr Tompkins in Wonderland illustrated book series in which Mr Tompkins dreams worlds where physics is all out of balance. Kortemeyer thought a video game would express these worlds better than images, while correcting inaccuracies in the books.

“It’s all about relative motion. I mean, it’s called relativity, so it’s about relative motion. You only notice these things when things are in motion. You can’t really make a snapshot of this, it wouldn’t convey the message,” said Kortemeyer.

The game works off an open-source physics engine that accurately represents light from the infrared spectrum up to ultraviolet. The games themselves are simple: move around the environment and complete basic quests, like collect x number of floating orbs.

The more you move the more psychedelic it becomes. For example, hot objects will start to shine bright like a bulb.

It’s a cool way of understanding the deep realities of the universe.

“The idea of the game was: let’s play around - kids learn by playing - and make a game in which the speed of light is slow and see if people can get an intuition about it. Let’s see if people can start to feel native and start to function in a world like this. Let’s see if people can lose some of their fear of physics, and maybe lose some of that sense that this is all so weird,” said Kortemeyer.

- Tomek Sysak


Light and Art at Winterlude, with Ottawa’s Andrew O’Malley

In his upcoming Winterlude art installation, artist, and engineer Andrew O’Malley will allow festival crowds choose a light, and his installation’s gonna let it shine.

For the installation, O’Malley will crowd together 12 cones of varying sizes – he called it a forest – that will be lit up by colourful LED lights. They’ll range from 6 feet tall, to 15 feet tall, and attendees will be able to scan the cones with their smartphones, and influence their colour.

He has yet to decide exactly what colours will be, but O’Malley said:

“I’m gonna create a pallet of nine colours that people can choose. In doing that, I’m playing with the lights, and I’m looking at how the cones light up. I can have cold, icy colours, ’cause its winter, or I can go with a really warm pallet,” said O’Malley. It’ll depend on the mood he wants to create.

“For the actual interaction, the newest colour selected on the phone will be displayed on the three tallest cones, while the previous colours will be distributed around the remaining cones; and every once in a while, one lucky user will be treated to a surprise,” said O’Malley.

The installation is supposed to show how people, especially a crowd, can influence the world through the powerful computers that we call “smartphones”.

“Because it can be accessed simultaneously by anyone with a smart phone, there will also be group play, and dynamics involved with the piece, as people either fight to control it or work together to try and collaborate on a colour scheme,” he said.

A lot of O’Malley’s work deals with the idea that the the natural variation in the environment can be represented in surprising, and interesting ways through technology. And when you start with something as surprising, and interesting as a crowd, who knows where the technology will take you.

For more of O'Malley’s work, click here. 

- Tomek Sysak