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How the mad scientists at Aldin Dynamics are creating emotions in virtual reality

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It takes me a second to realize where I am. The console-style television, the all-white mannequins‎ in the room with me — it's all so familiar, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I can feel the blood run from my face when I put it all together. "How long do I have left?" I ask.

I can hear Gunnar Steinn Valgardsson and Hrafn Thorri Thorisson of Aldin Dynamics laugh, although they're invisible to me. I'm inside their offices in Reykjavik, Iceland, trying some of the early demos they've been working on to figure out what works, and what doesn't, in virtual reality. This is the first time many of these demos have been shown to anyone outside the company.

"We're going to do this full-time for the next few decades, so we've been studying, trying to figure out what the breadth of experiences you can do in VR, what are the different challenges for difference genres, and what possible new genres are there," Thorisson said. "We've been experimenting with short experiences."

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This experience puts you in the middle of a nuclear test. The light flashes outside the house, and just like that, I'm dead. Or will be soon from radiation poisoning. I ask what else they have to show me.

Finding the future

Virtual reality is brand new in terms of game design, and Aldin Dynamics is one of the companies that has been frantically experimenting with different ideas and demos to try to find the best uses of the technology.

The nuclear test demo was from some early experiments in recreating historical situations for the viewer. Do you want to explore the moon landing? Maybe you'd want to see what it's like to watch Hitler speak from the audience, or find yourself in the heart of a nuclear explosion. The idea is to explore the past directly, not just read about it. How does it feel to actually be there?

This was an early demo, and the explosion was little more than a flash of light, but the slow realization of the situation, of finding myself inside a structure I knew was doomed, was chilling.

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Another demo was a sitting experience, and I was looking around a virtual card game. The men around the table were also looking around, and I found that I could sneak a peek at someone else's cards when he wasn't looking using the positional tracking of the Oculus Rift. I could also look at another character's cards in the mirror.

It's an elaborate cheating simulator, in other words, and when I leaned over to take a look at my neighbor's cards I looked up and saw him staring at me, an inch or two away from my face.

I felt guilty, and ashamed of myself. He didn't react at all. This is the sort of emotional reaction Aldin is trying to find in these demos. It's not about finding a fun game, not yet; it's about figuring out how to make the player feel things.

Another demo tested the idea of personal space inside of VR. You're standing in front of a female avatar, and as you lean toward her, she leans back. That's it. It's a simple interaction with a relatively simple character model. But I felt bad about myself. I felt aggressive and mean.

I was doing something that would be rude at best in real life, and openly threatening at worst. It's a sensation that can't be reproduced well on a flat screen, but in virtual reality the interaction had a profound impact on how I felt about myself and the characters around me. This is what Aldin is working on; how to use virtual reality specifically to draw emotions out of players, both good and bad.

The compnay is working on a Gear VR game that will be released commercially, and the company's first game, Asunder: Earthbound is already available for sale if you want to try one of the company's commercial games and a few interesting demos that plays with these ideas.

But for now, Aldin is putting together a base of knowledge and tools that will teach them how to create the best possible VR experiences. Based on these demos, they're on the right track.