VIGOR making gravitational waves intimate by swimming in them


We have just submitted for publication to HCII2017 conference a first report on our work on gravitational waves in the UTD ArtSciLab – a collaboration between theoretical physicst, animators and artists, and education specialists.

The project seeks to develop forms of intuition about gravitational waves and their behaviours.

With water waves we have had experience swimming in them and interacting with them, so we can anticipate their behaviour and sensory experience of them.

With gravitational waves we are totally sensorally blind. Gravitational waves perturb space itself, so that objects shrink and grow as the wave traverses the object.

We have no sensory interaction with gravitational waves. We have no words to describe them, or metaphors that are appropriate. ( gravitational waves dont leave you wet)

I have written elsewhere at length ( ) about the idea of ‘making science intimate”, where artists and researchers can create experiences that lead us to build our intuition for parts of the world we cant access through our senses only through instruments.

So in this case prof Midori Katagawa and her students Ngoc Tran and Thulasi Venlayundam ported Mike Kesdens equations for orbiting black holes into the unity gaming engine, and then gave access to the simulation via oculus rift.

Yes some of the users got motion sickness !! but not from the gravitational waves but from known latency problems in the oculus. And the avatar is in a swimsuit- and the user can “swim” through the waves and see themselves shrink and expand as the wave goes through them.

We are intersted in other researcher and artists work on how to make gravitational waves sensible !

here is the abstract

VIGOR: Virtual Interaction with Gravitational Waves to Observe Relativity

Midori Kitagawa1, Michael Kesden2, Ngoc Tran3, Thulasi Sivampillai Venlayudam4, Mary Urquhart5, Roger Malina6

University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas, USA

{1midori, 2kesden 3nmt140230, 4txs143330, 5urquhart, 6rxl116130}

Abstract. In 2015, a century after Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves from binary black holes fully consistent with this theory. Our goal for VIGOR (Virtual-reality Interaction with Gravitational waves to Observe Relativity) is to communicate this revolutionary discovery to the public by visualizing the gravitational waves emitted by binary black holes. VIGOR has been developed using the Unity game engine and VR headsets (Oculus Rift DK2 and Samsung Gear VR). Wearing a VR headset, VIGOR users control an avatar to “fly” around binary black holes, experiment on the black holes by manipulating their total mass, mass ratio, and orbital separation, and witness how gravitational waves emitted by the black holes stretch and squeeze the avatar. We evaluated our prototype of VIGOR with high school students in 2016 and are further improving VIGOR based on our findings.