So, there I was shuffling along a rickety plank spanning two tower blocks when the well-meaning Stanford professor urged me to jump. Like a fool, I did so and felt myself plummeting to the ground. I braced for the impact, but there was none.
Virtual reality may be great at tricking the senses but it cannot rewrite the laws of physics. I was still standing in the middle of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab with a VR headset strapped to my face.
“VR is not a media experience. It is an experience,” says Jeremy Bailenson, who runs the lab. At that point, as my thumping heart rate returned to normal, I understood just what he meant.
There is no doubt that the latest VR technology can generate stunning experiences. We are only beginning to grasp its full potential. But there is a lot more dispute about VR’s broader social and financial impact. Will VR be the next great computer platform for connecting people? Or will it be another passing technology fad that never really takes off, just as it flared once before in the 1990s?
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, has staked his reputation on the belief that VR is going to become a “very big mainstream thing” over the next decade. In March 2104, a few weeks after visiting Stanford’s lab, Mr Zuckerberg spent $2bn buying Oculus Rift, one of the leading VR developers. Facebook engineers have since been working on VR and it is shortly launching its $599 gaming and video package.
Last week, Mr Zuckerberg appeared at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona to argue that VR was poised to transform the way we live, work, and communicate. “VR is the next platform, where anyone can create and experience anything that they want,” he told the audience.
Something of an arms race has broken out among leading tech companies as they speed their products to the market this year. Samsung, HTC, and Sony have all invested heavily in virtual reality, while Microsoft is making a big play on augmented reality with its HoloLens product. AR overlays images for the viewer rather than fully immersing them in an alternative visual world.
Google has already distributed 5m Google Cardboard head-mounted displays since June 2014 giving viewers an early — if primitive — taste of VR using their smartphones. It is also working on far more sophisticated products.
Goldman Sachs recently calculated that venture capital companies had sunk a combined $3.5bn into 225 VR/AR investments over the past two years. The bank’s analysts suggest that VR could possibly be as big a game changer as the PC. Others agree about VR’s potential impact. The Gartner Hype Cycle For Emerging Technologies, which the consultancy uses to track the progress of new products, suggests VR is moving from the “trough of disillusionment” to the “slope of enlightenment” and is ready for mass adoption over the next five to 10 years.
Enthusiasts say VR’s most immediate impact will be to transform the games and entertainment market. Developers have already invented applications to follow live events and for use in the retail, real estate, education, healthcare and engineering sectors, while the US military has long adopted it for training.
The one other industry — not covered by analysts’ reports — most likely to be transformed by VR is pornography. Developers say it will be a particular boost to the teledildonics sector (yes, it is pretty much as it sounds and, no, it is not a good idea to Google that one at work).
Depending on the rate of adoption, Goldman Sachs estimates the size of the overall VR/AR market for hardware and software could be between $23bn and $182bn by 2025. The wide variation in its forecasts highlights how much remains to be done before VR goes mainstream. Few PCs currently have the capacity to support full VR, the costs remain high, and immersive computing can isolate people as much as bring them together. Some commentators noted the irony of Mr Zuckerberg walking through the audience at Barcelona unnoticed because everyone was wearing a VR headset.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to the rapid take-off of VR, though, will be the lack of truly compelling content. As with any new technology, developers have to reimagine how content can work in radically new ways rather than reusing old concepts from existing formats. Facebook says it already has 200,000 developers registered to create games on its VR platform.
The final destination seems clear but the route map remains fuzzy. What will be the killer app?
虚拟现实(VR)或许在欺骗感官方面很有效，但它不能改写物理定律。我仍然站在斯坦福大学(Stanford University)虚拟互动实验室(Virtual Human Interaction Lab)的中央，头戴着一部系在脸上的VR头罩。
Facebook创始人马克?扎克伯格(Mark Zuckerberg)拿自己的声望豪赌一个信念：未来10年，VR将成为一个“非常重要的主流产品”。2014年3月，在访问斯坦福实验室几周后，扎克伯格斥资20亿美元收购了领先的VR开发商之一Oculus Rift。自那以来，Facebook的工程技术人员一直在研究VR，并将在不久之后推出售价599美元的游戏与视频套件产品。
最近，扎克伯格在出席巴塞罗那世界移动大会(Mobile World Congress)时辩称，VR注定会转变我们的生活、工作和沟通信方式。“VR是下一个平台，人们可以用它创造和体验自己想要的任何东西，”他对观众表示。
根据高盛(Goldman Sachs)最近的计算，过去2年里，风险资本公司已累计向225个VR/AR项目投入了35亿美元。该行分析师提出，VR可能像个人电脑(PC)那样成为一类改变游戏规则的重要产品。其他人也认同VR的潜在影响。咨询机构高德纳(Gartner)用来追踪新产品的“高德纳新兴技术成熟度曲线”(Gartner Hype Cycle For Emerging Technologies)似乎表明，VR正从“幻觉破灭的谷底”进入“启蒙的斜坡”，有望在未来5至10年大规模普及。