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虚拟现实还有希望崛起吗?| VR兴衰史

Aric Jenkins 2019年07月12日

过去五年内,虚拟现实一直被视为下一个新事物,目前依然如此。笨重的头盔、匮乏的内容以及消费者兴趣寥寥让VR陷入停滞。这项被大肆热炒的技术最终能流行起来吗?

在圣莫妮卡的The Void门店,佩戴了设备的顾客正在探索另一个空间。基于位置的VR公司队伍正在不断壮大,The Void是其中收费最高的一家。它在全世界设有11家店铺。图片来源:Courtesy of The Void

在一位自行车修理工一定程度的协助下,保罗·麦卡特尼为虚拟现实的未来做出了些许贡献。

伟大的披头士乐队成员、帕洛阿尔托一家自行车商店的修理工以及一项前景光明但也许未能充分发挥潜力的技术——刚刚起步的照相机公司Jaunt VR富于进取精神的高管斯科特·布鲁克让这几个看似不相干的元素重叠在了一起。2014年,布鲁克花50美元雇了一位修理工,让他骑着BMX小轮车围着一处滑板公园绕圈,同时用可以360度录音录像的专用相机把前前后后、上上下下的声音和影像都录了个遍。布鲁克希望这辆小轮车围绕滑板公园行进时由其链条发出的声音能够成为理想的Ambisonic格式音频,也就是全方位围绕着收听者的环境音。

几个月后,布鲁克设法让麦卡特尼看了当时录的一段影像。麦卡特尼深受触动,当即邀请Jaunt VR为他的演唱会录像。时间是第二天晚上,地点是旧金山久负盛名的烛台公园,也就是披头士乐队在48年前进行谢幕演出的地方。Jaunt VR迅速采取行动,制作了最早的VR影像之一。这部沉浸式体育场演唱会电影可以让观众体会到站在跳动的人群中的感觉。2016年,布鲁克离开了Jaunt VR,随后一年在YouTube做“全球VR推广人”。但他仍然将那部演唱会电影视为一项突破性成就。“我们录下了保罗·麦卡特尼在人们面前演唱的片段,这种录影方式,在100年后看来,也许就像我们现在看黑白电影一样”——原始但具有开创性。“那是一种很有力量的东西。”

这个精彩的比喻是虚拟现实推广者的标准说辞。大家可以想象一下那些粗糙的电影画面——带着高顶礼貌的人在马车和福特T型车之间无声无息地走动。就像电影能够向观众展示他们从未去过的地方一样,虚拟现实可以把观众直接带进这样的场景之中。正是看到了这样的前景,Facebook才在2014年出资30亿美元收购了VR头盔制造商Oculus VR,推广人才会在那之后年复一年地宣称VR是下一个新事物。谷歌、HTC、三星和索尼等消费电子公司也像Facebook一样,争相在市场上推出已经为消费者做好准备的VR头盔。风投人士为内容开发和硬件应用投入了几十亿美元。《时代》杂志将22岁的Oculus创始人帕尔默·拉基搬上了封面,并宣称虚拟现实技术“即将改变世界”。马克·扎克伯格也在2017年说出了“希望10亿人使用Oculus头盔”的豪言壮语,只是他没有说什么时候会实现。

Paul McCartney made his modest contribution to the future of virtual reality with a little help from a bike mechanic.

The unlikely union of the Beatles great, a bike-shop employee in Palo Alto, and a promising if underachieving technology is the accomplishment of Scott Broock, once an enterprising executive with a fledgling camera company called Jaunt VR. In 2014, Broock offered to pay the mechanic $50 to ride around a skate park on a BMX bike while being filmed with a specialized camera rig that could shoot video and record sound in 360 degrees—all around and up and down. Broock hoped the bike’s chain clanging around the fishbowl would be ideal for something called ambisonic audio, surround sound hearable above, below, and around the listener.

A few months later, Broock managed to show a clip of the video to McCartney, who was so impressed that he invited Jaunt to film his concert the very next night at San Francisco’s historic Candlestick Park, the same venue where the Fab Four had performed their final show 48 years earlier. The startup company quickly mobilized and recorded one of the first videos of its kind, an immersive stadium concert film that would give a viewer the sensation of being among the pulsating crowd. Broock left Jaunt in 2016 and subsequently served a yearlong stint as a “global VR evangelist” for YouTube. But he still looks back at the concert video as a breakthrough achievement. “There’s a moment recorded in time of Paul McCartney playing in front of people captured in a way that, maybe 100 years from now, seems like black-and-white films”¬—primitive but pioneering. “That’s a powerful thing.”

The vintage film comparison—think: grainy footage of silent passersby shuffling around in top hats among horse-drawn carriages and Model T–esque cars—is standard fare for virtual reality’s boosters. Just as movies showed viewers places they’d never go, VR would transport them directly into those same filmed environments. That was the promise that led Facebook to pay $3 billion for headset maker Oculus VR in 2014, and every year since, evangelists have proclaimed virtual reality the next new thing. Consumer tech players including Google, HTC, Samsung, and Sony joined Facebook in a race to bring consumer-ready headsets to market. Venture capitalists poured billions into content development and hardware applications. Time magazine put the then-22-year-old founder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, on its cover and announced the technology was “about to change the world.” Mark Zuckerberg in 2017 famously said he wanted a billion people to be using Oculus headsets—though he conspicuously didn’t say by when.

关注不足:尽管获得了1亿美元资金,Jaunt VR还是放弃了虚拟现实,它的注意力已经转向增强现实。CEO米茨·里奥夫说:“它对我们公司来说就是行不通。”图片来源:Photograph by Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune

扎克伯格避而不谈时间问题可以理解。这是因为在所有充斥着炒作的预言中,虚拟现实对美国人的日常生活来说仍然处于虚幻之中。举例来说,据尼尔森公司旗下专门研究游戏行业的机构SuperData介绍,2018年Oculus的旗舰VR头盔Oculus Rift只卖出了35.4万个。而IDC的数据显示,当年索尼卖出了1700万多台PlayStation 4,全球智能手机销量则达到14亿部。消费者普遍发现VR太贵、太笨重或太不舒适,而且缺乏值得尝试1至2次以上的内容。怀疑者认为这很像昙花一现的3D电视刚刚进入21世纪时的遭遇。

虚拟现实的缓慢应用让多家公司成为了牺牲品。影院运营商IMAX曾经斥资5000万美元,把VR影院从纽约开到了曼谷。但又在短短两年内关闭了所有的VR影院。谷歌自己的VR电影工作室Spotlight Stories在今年年初关门歇业。2017年,热门冰岛游戏开发商CCP Games裁员100人并终止了新VR项目的开发。该公司的CEO希尔玛·维伽·佩图尔松说:“我们在自己的数据中看到,VR要发展到所需的水平还需要一段时间。”他还说这场等待将“以年计,而不是月”。就连有麦卡特尼“助阵”而且获得迪士尼等方面逾1亿美元投资的Jaunt VR也无法让虚拟现实获得成功。去年该公司的注意力转移到了一项相关技术,也就是增强现实上。这项技术是在真实场景中添加图像,而不是让用户沉浸在其他世界里。Jaunt VR的CEO米茨·里奥夫说:“我们的重点是推动消费应用并了解消费者想在VR中看到什么。” 里奥夫负责了这家硅谷公司的大规模裁员。“它还没有进入对我们公司来说行得通的阶段。”

把虚拟现实描述为又一次炒作过度的短暂狂热很有诱惑力。但这样做就等于忽略了科技行业的一个长期事实,那就是倒下的先行者为他人的突破铺平了道路。毕竟,苹果公司的牛顿机和宝丽来的Polavision摄影机失败后,iPad和便携式摄像机才有可能活下来。智能手机用了10年时间才流行起来。早期的VR头盔可追溯到20世纪60年代,任天堂和世嘉则在20世纪90年代分别在消费市场上推出了命运多舛的Virtual Boy和Sega VR。尽管VR一直让娱乐业感到失望——麦卡特尼的演唱会VR电影绝不会取得白金销量,但实际情况证明,这项技术可以在合理的商业应用领域里发挥作用,比如员工培训以及新的娱乐概念方面。毕竟,如果一项超级酷的技术已经吸引了一批死心塌地的信徒,让它消亡就会变得极为困难。

That omission is understandable. Because for all the hype-filled promises, virtual reality remains, well, virtually absent from everyday American life. Oculus in 2018, for example, shipped just 354,000 units of its flagship VR headset, the Oculus Rift, according to estimates from SuperData, a gaming-focused research unit of Nielsen. Contrast that with the more than 17 million PlayStation 4 game consoles Sony moved in the same period or global smartphone sales that year of 1.4 billion, according to IDC. Consumers are finding that VR is typically too expensive, too clunky, or too uncomfortable, and lacking in content that is worth trying more than once or twice. Skeptics compare the experience to the short-lived 3D-TV fad of the early 2010s.

The sluggish adoption has claimed multiple victims. Cinema operator IMAX, which used $50 million in venture capital funding to open virtual reality arcades in cities from New York to Bangkok, shuttered all the locations after just two years. Google’s in-house VR film studio, Spotlight Stories, folded earlier this year. And CCP Games, a popular Icelandic video game developer, laid off 100 people and ceased its development of new VR projects in 2017. “We saw in our own data that this is gonna take a while to get to the place it needs to be,” says CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, adding that the wait will be “years, not months.” Even Jaunt, despite the boost from McCartney and more than $100 million of funding, including from Disney, couldn’t make a go of VR. Last year it shifted its attention to a related technology, augmented reality, which adds visual cues to real-life settings rather than trying to immerse users in distinct worlds. “We were focused on driving consumer adoption and understanding what consumers want to watch in VR,” says CEO Mitzi Reaugh, who oversaw a mass layoff at the Silicon Valley company. “It just wasn’t moving on the timeline that made sense for our company.”

It is tempting to write off virtual reality as yet another overhyped fad. Yet that would ignore the technology industry’s long history of fallen pioneers paving the way for someone else’s breakthroughs. The Apple Newton and the Polaroid Polavision died, after all, so that the iPad and camcorder might live. It took a decade for smartphones to become ubiquitous. Early VR headsets themselves date back to the 1960s, while Nintendo and Sega in the 1990s forayed into the consumer market with the ill-fated Virtual Boy and Sega VR systems, respectively. And even if VR has been a disappointment for the entertainment industry—the McCartney VR concert video will never go platinum—the technology is proving useful in sensible business applications, like workforce training, and yet new entertainment concepts. After all, when a technology is so exceedingly cool that it attracts a legion of true believers, it is extremely difficult to kill.

****

在Facebook加州门洛帕克总部的一幢建筑里,走过一面满是员工字迹和“实践出真知”等励志话语的实体墙后,就会在一个宽敞的灰色房间里看到备受期待的Oculus Quest。VR发烧友相信这款设备能够改变一切。今年5月发布的Oculus Quest是Oculus的第一款专为高性能游戏设计的一体化头盔。它不需要连线,也不用和个人电脑相连,而且实现了六自由度运行,从而允许用户朝任何方向看或者行进,这和去年同样采用无线设计但沉浸感不那么强的Oculus Go不同。Oculus Quest的起步价为399美元,和索尼PS4以及微软Xbox One等主流游戏机的价格相当。

在别人帮助下戴上VR设备是一种很尴尬的体验。头盔紧紧贴在脸上后,就像大家知道的那样,刚才帮助你的那个人也许会向你竖中指,因为现在你看到的,没错,是另一个现实。就我来说,这个现实非常令人满意——我的Oculus Home,或者说我的虚拟住宅看起来就像是建筑大师弗兰克·劳埃德·赖特的杰作,它用枫木做内饰,还有可以看到北极光的玻璃穹顶。

Inside a building on Facebook’s sprawling Menlo Park, Calif., campus, past a literal Facebook wall scribbled with employees’ handwriting and motivational quotes like “If you never try, you’ll never know,” a spacious gray room is set up to demonstrate the highly anticipated Oculus Quest. This is the device VR enthusiasts believe can change everything. Released in May, the Quest is Oculus’s first all-in-one headset built for high-powered gaming. It requires no wires or connection to a PC and can operate with a full six degrees of freedom that allows users to look around and walk in all directions, unlike last year’s similarly wireless but less immersive Oculus Go. At a starting price of $399, it’s on par with mainstream consoles like Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One.

Being placed into a VR device by an¬other person is an awkward experience. Once the headset snugly fits over your face, the person who was just assisting you could be giving you the middle finger for all you know because you are now staring at, yes, another reality. In my case, it’s a very satisfying one, in which my Oculus Home, or the home screen, looks as if it were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with a maple wood interior and a domed glass roof peering up at the Northern Lights.

替代现实创造者:Facebook的VR产品负责人西恩·刘和执行制作人叶莲娜·莱切斯基的任务是执行马克·扎克伯格的VR策略。图片来源:Photograph by Cody Pickens for Fortune

但Oculus Quest的用途并非建筑领域,而是在游戏上。和该设备一起发布的游戏有50多款,其中最受欢迎的莫过于色彩绚丽、节奏明快的《节奏空间》(Beat Saber),它由捷克独立游戏工作室Beat Games开发和发行。对它的最恰当描述是跳舞机游戏《Dance Dance Revolution》和RPG游戏《星球大战》(Star Wars)的结合体。今年3月,《节奏空间》成为首款销量超百万的VR游戏,而且其增长势头没有任何放缓迹象。这得感谢YouTube上的活跃粉丝社区,他们发布的出色玩家视频获得了数百万的点击量。今年4月,《今夜秀》(Tonight Show)的主持人吉米·法伦和女演员布丽·拉尔森双双在这档全国性节目上玩了这款游戏。这让大声叫好的VR爱好者们几乎喘不上气来。YouTube的知名up主纳撒尼尔·德容(绰号“纳斯”)在推特上说:“这太棒了!这是整个VR行业的真正杀手级营销。”

玩了15分钟的《节奏空间》后,我已经出汗了。Beat Games的CEO雅罗斯拉夫·贝克说,你“在自己不知道的情况下锻炼了身体。你用最有冲击力的方式感受了音乐,因为你是在用身体在感受它”。从设计人员到投资者,再到公司高管,整个行业的从业者都说它是目前最接近“杀手级app”的产品,或者说消费者会为了这款精彩的游戏而购买VR头盔。这正是Facebook设立Oculus Studios时希望看到的情况,后者为Beat Games这样的第三方游戏开发商提供资金和技术建议。

Facebook对VR的最初愿景可比游戏庞大得多。它认为电影式的虚拟现实有望成为突破性应用,而创造那些杰作的并非第三方开发商,而是它自己。2015年,Facebook成立了专门为虚拟现实制作电影的内部机构Oculus Story Studio。但尽管凭借动画短片《Henry》赢得了一座艾美奖,Facebook还是在2017年关闭了这个部门。曾经在Oculus Story Studio工作的执行制作人叶莲娜·莱切斯基说Facebook意识到自己的影响力更适合去激励一个生态系统模式。她解释道:“我觉得现实情况就是在一家大公司里未必会出现许多创造性活动。在我看来,外面那些不受特定公司结构限制或制约的创作者拥有的创新和创造性思路会不断地拓展VR的疆域。”

好莱坞在Facebook的VR梦里位置超然。爱德华·萨奇是Oculus Story Studio的创始成员。他的父亲莫里斯是萨奇广告公司的创始人之一。爱德华说他们的目标是创作出可能“给整个行业带来灵感”的VR内容。他还介绍说,大约五年前,对这一技术的前景感兴趣的几位好莱坞导演曾经和时任Oculus CEO的布伦丹·艾里布接触过。爱德华现在领导着一家名为Fable的“虚拟存在”公司,他说:“他们超级兴奋,说:‘咱们来拍一部VR电影吧。’艾里布却回答说:‘我不知道怎么拍。’” 据爱德华介绍,Oculus设立Oculus Story Studio的目的是想知道怎么拍这样的电影。“我们的目标是让电影学院开设VR电影课程,让电影节接受VR电影,让著名导演去拍VR电影。”他指出,凭借《鸟人》(Birdman)拿下2014年奥斯卡最佳影片奖的导演亚利桑德罗·冈萨雷斯·伊纳里图在2017年通过VR短片《血肉与黄沙》(Carne y Arena)又获得了一个奥斯卡奖。“所以,从这个角度来说,我们成功了。只是它还没有成为主流。除了主题公园,还没有任何迹象表明有什么人愿意出钱来做叙事性VR内容。”

But the Quest is not about architecture; it’s about games. More than 50 of them launched with the device, none more popular than the colorful rhythmic sensation Beat Saber, developed and published by indie Czech studio Beat Games. Best described as Dance Dance Revolution meets Star Wars, Beat Saber in March became the first VR game to claim to surpass 1 million copies sold, and it shows no signs of slowing down. That’s thanks to an active fan community on YouTube, generating millions of hits from videos showcasing standout players. In April, it was featured on a Tonight Show segment with the host Jimmy Fallon and actress Brie Larson each playing the game on national television. VR enthusiasts nearly hyperventilated in their praise. “This is huge!” tweeted popular VR YouTuber Nathaniël “Nathie” de Jong. “True killer marketing for the entire VR industry.”

After 15 minutes of playing the game, I am sweating. You’re “exercising without knowing you are,” says Beat Games CEO Jaroslav Beck. “You are feeling the music in the most powerful way because you are physically experiencing it.” People across the industry, from developers to investors to company executives, say that this is, right now, the closest thing VR has to a “killer app”—a piece of content so good that it’s possible consumers will buy VR headsets just to play the game. It’s exactly the kind of outcome Facebook hoped for when it started Oculus Studios, a division that gives funding and technical advice to third-party game developers like Beat Games.

Facebook’s initial vision for VR was far grander than games. It thought cinematic virtual reality would be a breakthrough application and that Facebook itself, rather than third-party developers, would create the masterpieces. Facebook established the Oculus Story Studio in 2015 as an in-house film department dedicated to making movies for virtual reality. Yet despite winning an Emmy for its animated short “Henry,” Facebook shuttered the studio in 2017. Yelena Rachitsky, a Facebook executive producer who’d been with the defunct studio, says Facebook realized its clout was better deployed encouraging an ecosystem approach. “I think there is just a reality that a lot of the creativity doesn’t necessarily happen within a big corporation,” she explains. “It’s the creators out there who aren’t limited or confined by specific corporate structures [who] I think have the innovative and creative thoughts that are going to continue to push the boundaries in VR.”

Hollywood also figured prominently in Facebook’s VR dreams. Edward Saatchi, whose father, Maurice, cofounded the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, was a founding member of the Oculus Story Studio. He says the goal was to create VR content that could “inspire an industry.” Five or so years ago, Hollywood directors approached then Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, intrigued by the technology’s prospects, says Saatchi, who now heads a “virtual beings” company called Fable. “They were super excited and said, ‘Let’s make a VR movie.’ But he was like, ‘I have no idea how to do that.’ ” The Story Studio was Oculus’s attempt to find out how. “Our goal was to get film schools teaching VR movies, to have film festivals accepting VR movies, to have famous directors do VR movies,” Saatchi explains, noting that director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Birdman won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014, took home another Oscar for his 2017 VR short, Carne y Arena. “So, in that sense, we succeeded. Except it didn’t become a mainstream thing. There just isn’t any evidence that anyone is willing to pay for narrative VR content outside of a theme park.”

组装Oculus Quest光学眼罩模组。图片来源:Photograph by Cody Pickens for Fortune

回头看去,马克·扎克伯格当时是如此痴迷于VR的理论性潜力,以至于他在投入几十亿美元时仍然没有想清楚怎么把VR变成一门生意。布莱克·哈里斯用乐观的题目《未来的历史:Oculus、Facebook和席卷VR的革命》(The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality)写过一本书。他说:“扎克伯格有一个热门app。但在他心里,借用别人的平台总是个问题。这要感谢微软、谷歌和苹果。”

的确,扎克伯格和他的手下把VR描述为Facebook为数十亿人创造社交体验的下一个逻辑落脚点。Facebook的VR产品管理负责人西恩·刘说,就像它把维系友情的模拟行为数字化一样,现在Facebook想让人们在虚拟现实里“跨越地域界限。我们真的在考虑并推动这样的概念,让人民及其虚拟化身进入虚拟现实中。我们怎样才能够让人们展示表情并做出社交表述,从而真正地相互连接并且进行各种各样的活动呢?”

在现实社会,迄今为止VR还没有成为流行通信工具。但这并不妨碍Facebook对它的热情。扎克伯格在去年的投资者电话会议上说:“我不知道VR什么时候会变得重要起来。我们刚开始谈论这个问题时,我曾经说它真正成为非常主流的东西以及一个主要平台需要10年时间。”差不多5年过去了,但这项未来派技术距离实现扎克伯格预想的情景还很遥远。

In retrospect, Mark Zuckerberg was so enamored with the theoretical potential of VR that it appears he spent billions without having thought through how to make a business of it. “It was a platform play,” says Blake Harris, author of the optimistically titled The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality. “He had a popular app. But in his mind there’s always going to be this problem of living on other people’s platforms. You’re beholden to Microsoft, Google, and Apple.”

Indeed, Zuckerberg and his minions have described VR as the logical next step in the social experience Facebook itself created for billions of people. Just as it digitized the analog behavior of keeping up with one’s friends, now Facebook wants people inside a virtual reality to “span geographical boundaries,” as Facebook director of VR product management Sean Liu says. “We’re really thinking and pushing the notion of how we bring you and your avatar into VR. How do we allow you to emote and have social expression to really connect together and do different activities?”

In the reality we live in today, VR isn’t a prevalent tool of communication. But that hasn’t dampened Facebook’s enthusiasm for it. “I don’t know exactly when it’s going to be a big deal,” Zuckerberg said in a call with investors last year. “When we started talking about this, I said that I thought that this is going to be a 10-year journey before this was really a very mainstream and major platform.” Just about halfway down the road, the futuristic technology is nowhere near realizing Zuckerberg’s vision.

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一名带着面具的抢劫犯拿枪对着我,他把我和一位不停啜泣的女士推进了后面的一个房间。他喊道:“拿着这个该死的袋子,捡起来,把东西装进去。所有东西!”现在他正朝着一面白色的墙走去,墙上摆满了包装好的手机和配件。在我们有所反应前出现了一道闪光,一阵呼呼的噪音,然后时间突然向前跳了。那位女士开始慌张地把电子产品装到袋子里。那个抢劫犯的同伙喊道:“快点!我们走!”然后是一片黑暗。

我摘下Oculus Go头盔,四周明亮而安详,我正坐在曼哈顿熨斗区一座不起眼的写字楼里,斯坦福大学教授、该校虚拟人机交互实验室创始负责人杰里米·贝伦森站在我身边。他向我解释了刚才看到的影像,那是为威瑞森门店员工制作的VR培训材料,教他们如何应对手持武器的抢劫犯。贝伦森说:“如果你在威瑞森的店里工作,你会发现很多贵重商品就放在靠近门口的地方。每年这些店都会遭到几十次持枪抢劫。他们希望通过培训让员工知道怎么保证自身安全。”多年来威瑞森一直采用传统培训方法——在教室里讲解,并请演员来充当劫匪。但该公司发现这种方法收效甚微。威瑞森的全球培训副总裁卢·特德里克说:“虽然已经培训过了,但[我们的员工]未必能够应付抢劫。我们觉得用VR可能是个好办法,因为它有助于增强遭到抢劫时的记忆。我们想在安全环境下让人们感受它,而且可以就此展开讨论。”

The masked robber points a gun in my face and shuffles me and a sobbing woman into a back room. “Take this fucking bag, pick it up, and fill it up!” he screams. “Everything!” Now he’s motioning toward a white wall lined with packaged phones and accessories. Before we can react, a flash, a whirring noise, and then time cuts forward. The woman is now stuffing electronics into the bag, panicked. “Hurry the fuck up!” the robber’s accomplice shouts. “Let’s go!” And then black.

As I remove my Oculus Go headset, all is bright and peaceful in an empty classroom inside an unassuming office building in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford professor and founding director of the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, stands beside me. He begins explaining what I have just witnessed: a VR training module for Verizon store employees to learn how to deal with armed robberies. “If you work at a Verizon store, there’s so much expensive material that’s right near the door,” he says. “They have dozens of robberies at gunpoint each year. They want to train their employees to be safe.” Verizon had been offering traditional training procedures for years, utilizing classroom instruction and hiring actors to simulate robberies. But the company found it minimally effective. “Despite having been trained, [our employees] weren’t necessarily equipped to manage through the robbery,” says Lou Tedrick, Verizon’s vice president of global learning. “We thought VR would be a good use case because it would help the muscle memory of what it had felt like to be robbed. You want to be able to feel it in a safe environment and be able to talk about it.”

为改善安全培训,威瑞森找到了贝伦森2015年创立的VR培训公司Strivr,后者和沃尔玛等其他大公司的合作给威瑞森留下了深刻印象。他们请Strivr为其开发模块,用于训练店铺经理应对高度还原的抢劫场景。从2018年年底开始,1500名威瑞森门店经理接受了Strivr的培训。在调查中,95%的经理表示他们更明白了面对真正抢劫时自己需要考虑的因素。对于故意给员工带来心理创伤的道德问题,特德里克说专业培训人员会带领员工一步步地完成培训,她还指出:“实际上,许多人都对我们表示感谢,因为我们创造了一种无比真实的体验,而不是设法弱化这种经历。”威瑞森现在计划让所有的店铺经理都参加这些VR仿真培训。

实际情况表明,虽然VR电影或虚拟聚会还没有迎来全盛时期,但这项技术非常适合某些实际性应用。在外科手术培训、STEM(科学、技术、工程、数学)教育、工业设计、建筑、房地产等领域,VR已经越来越受欢迎。在Facebook于今年4月举办的F8开发者大会上,Oculus宣布一个更大的Oculus商业项目定于今年秋天开始,它包括让开发者接触到Oculus Quest这样的企业级头盔以及“一套专门软件,可以提供设备设置、管理工具、企业级服务和支持以及为商业应用定制的用户新体验”。与此同时,微软和HTC已经开始分别向工业企业大量推广使用混合现实技术的HoloLens和HTC Vive头盔。HTC美国Vive产品线总经理丹·奥布里恩说:“消费者方面的市场更大,但我们在企业领域里的增长更为迅猛。”

给威瑞森提供培训服务的Strivr只专注于B2B VR应用。除了这家大型电信公司,它的客户还包括Chipotle、捷蓝航空、富达投资和泰森食品。该公司已经向全美国的沃尔玛超市和较小的沃尔玛门店推出了1.7万个安装了Strivr软件的Oculus Go头盔,而且全都是为了内部使用。这家初创企业表示,它可以通过这些头盔追踪人们的表现和眼睛的运动,进而提供分析。Strivr的CEO及联合创始人、也是贝伦森带过的研究生德里克·贝尔奇说:“当一家公司跟我们说,‘我需要确定接受培训的人是在看着地上的桶’,根据VR培训的分析,我们就可以告诉他那人并没有这样做。也就是说在真实世界中他们不会看着那个桶。对此我们毫不含糊。”

企业技术应用比消费型版本更早取得商业成功并非罕见现象。贝尔奇说他家就没有VR头盔。Strivr的支持者之一、门洛帕克投资机构Signia Venture Partners的创始合伙人佐·赛特显然对自己的公司押宝一款企业应用感到很满意。他说:“消费领域还没有杀手级app。没错,僵尸屋能在10分钟内吓你一跳,我四岁的儿子喜欢对着太阳系看上5分钟。但他不会天天如此。”

To improve its safety training, Verizon approached Strivr, a VR software training company Bailenson cofounded in 2015. Impressed by the startup’s work with other large corporate partners like Walmart, Verizon tasked Strivr with developing modules to train store managers in high--fidelity heist scenarios. Since late 2018, roughly 1,500 of these managers have undergone Strivr’s training experiences. When surveyed, 95% said they better understood the factors they would need to consider during an actual burglary attempt. Asked about the ethical concerns of purposefully traumatizing employees, Tedrick says that professional trainers walk employees through every step of the way. “In fact, we had many people thank us for creating an incredibly realistic experience versus trying to sanitize the experience,” she adds. Verizon now plans to have store managers at all its retail locations trained in these VR simulations.

It turns out that while VR movies or virtual hangouts may not be ready for prime time, the technology is ideal for certain practical applications. VR is gaining traction in fields like surgical training, STEM education, industrial design, architecture, real estate, and more. At Facebook’s F8 developer conference in April, Oculus announced an expanded Oculus for Business program slated to begin in the fall. It includes access to enterprise-grade headsets, such as the new Oculus Quest, and “a dedicated software suite offering device setup and management tools, enterprise-grade service and support, and a new user experience customized for business use cases.” Microsoft and HTC, meanwhile, have pushed heavily into industrial enterprise with the mixed-reality HoloLens headset and the HTC Vive, respectively. “Our bigger market is on the consumer side,” says HTC’s Dan O’Brien, general manager of the Americas for the Vive product line. “But our more aggressive growth area is enterprise.”

Strivr, the Verizon vendor, is solely focused on business-to-business VR applications. In addition to the giant phone company, it counts Chipotle, Jet Blue, Fidelity Investments, and Tyson Foods as clients. It has distributed 17,000 Oculus Go headsets embedded with Strivr’s software in Walmart superstores and smaller stores across the country, all for internal use. From there, the startup says it can provide analytics that track performance and eye movement. “When a company tells us, ‘I need to know that the trainee looked at that bucket on the floor,’ we can tell you that they did not look at it,” says Strivr CEO and cofounder Derek Belch, a former graduate student of Bailenson’s. “That means they’re not going to look at it in the real world. Like, unequivocally.”

It isn’t unusual for business technology applications to find commercial success before their consumer versions do. Belch of Strivr says he doesn’t own a headset at home. One of Strivr’s backers, Zaw Thet of Signia Venture Partners in Menlo Park, Calif., is clearly pleased with his firm’s bet on an enterprise application. “There isn’t a killer app here on the consumer side,” he says. “Yeah, in 10 minutes you can get scared in a zombie house, and my 4-year-old likes to go look at the solar system for five minutes. But it’s not something he’s in every day.”

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除了价格、不舒适以及缺乏好内容外,还有什么原因妨碍了VR使用者的增长呢? VR会让人们完全脱离现实。说实话,谁有时间那么做呢?早期投资机构沙斯塔创投的合伙人雅各布·穆林斯说:“你在一座围起来的花园里,在一个头盔里,跟真实世界没有任何联系。”

实际上,VR在改变方法后取得了一定成功,特别是通过增强现实(AR)技术。AR的特征和VR类似,但它不是以完全沉浸的方式让使用者进入另一个现实,而是将数字元素添加到现实世界中,通常是在智能手机上。大家可以想想手游《口袋精灵》(Pokémon Go)或者宜家的app,它能为用户模拟出新家具摆在他们家里的模样。随着对VR的信心减弱,AR现在开始经历五年前VR热潮中的那种炒作——初创公司Magic Leap筹集了近25亿美元来开发AR眼镜和相关内容。就连Facebook也在“对冲”自己的投资。今年早些时候,该公司将Facebook Reality Labs的数百名员工转移到了一个专门开发AR硬件的团队中。Facebook Research网站信誓旦旦地表示:“将来,我们的AR眼镜将让真实世界和数字世界合二为一,把现实与可能结合在一起,进而打造出新的主流必备可穿戴消费技术。”

Why don’t more people use virtual reality—besides the issues of price, discomfort, and lack of good content? Because VR requires you to completely abandon reality. And, honestly, who has time for that? “You’re inside of a walled garden, you’re inside of a headset where you don’t have access to the real world,” says Jacob Mullins, a partner at Shasta Ventures, an early backer of the technology.

In fact, where VR has found limited success is by tweaking its approach, especially with augmented reality. AR shares similar properties with VR, but rather than completely immersing a viewer in another reality, it adds digital elements to the real world, typically through a smartphone. Think of Pokémon Go or the Ikea app that enables users to place and visualize new furniture within their homes. As confidence in virtual reality falters, AR is now experiencing levels of hype similar to the VR wave of five years ago, with startups like Magic Leap raising close to $2.5 billion to develop AR glasses and related content. Even Facebook is hedging its bets. Earlier this year, it moved hundreds of employees from its Facebook Reality Labs research division to a team dedicated to AR hardware projects. “In the future, our AR glasses will merge the physical and digital worlds, blending what’s real with what’s possible, resulting in the next mainstream, must-have, wearable consumer technology,” promises a Facebook Research web page.

预备、瞄准、成像:一位Strivr员工正在展示如何用生物机械输入方法精确捕捉人体动作。图片来源:Courtesy of Strivr

一些人的思路是改进我们的世界也许比取代它或者创造一个新世界更有吸引力。由于AR技术不像VR那么成熟,纯粹的消费型AR眼镜依然很遥远,但AR已经可以广泛使用在智能手机上了,这要感谢苹果推出了一系列软件开发工具,让简单易用的应用成为可能。比如,这项技术很受塔吉特、沃尔玛和Bed Bath & Beyond等零售商欢迎,它们都在自己的iPhone app上加入了AR功能,以便顾客在购物前查看商品的模样。

风投趋势从VR到AR的转变尤其明显。穆林斯说:“我对这两种技术同样感兴趣,但作为投资者,我不得不关注有消费者、市场机遇以及需求的领域。两年前,VR看来更令人兴奋,而且会有更大的规模。但后来苹果让3亿多部设备有了AR功能,而且这个数字还在增长。”的确,SuperData 的数据显示,2016年,也就是VR风投达到顶峰的那一年,风险投资公司为VR初创企业注入了8.57亿美元资金,而AR和MR,也就是能够让数字影像和真实世界互动的混合现实技术获得的总投资也只有4.55亿美元。但2018年,这两个数字出现了反转,VR投资降至2.8亿美元,对AR和MR的投资则猛增至8.59亿美元。

还有一个不断成长的领域也找回了VR最初的承诺,那就是娱乐行业。这种吸引人的商业应用被称为“基于位置的娱乐”(LBE)。一大批公司开始推出一种实际上跨越了商场和电影院的业态,并以主题公园为之冠名。在这些实体店铺中,消费者在定制空间用VR技术自由行动,他们会组成一个小群体。戴上Oculus、HTC等公司的VR头盔后,他们就会以虚拟化身的形象出现在其他参与者眼中。有一些体验比较像游戏,参与者会拿着塑料模型枪。其他则更像是和观众互动的叙事性电影。和个人戴着头盔的VR应用相比,LBE还有一项优势,那就是参与者身上绑着会振动的触感设备,从而让人更加“乐在其中”。有些场所甚至用电风扇、洒水器和加热器来模拟刮风、下雨或者炎热天气。

Dreamscape Immersive是一家设在洛杉矶的LBE“展示机构”,它从21世纪福克斯、华纳兄弟和AMC等公司获得了3600万美元投资。好莱坞老牌制片人、Dreamscape Immersive的联席董事长沃尔特·帕克斯表示,该公司希望用沉浸式叙事,或者说互动式观影体验来吸引消费者。帕克斯说他发现LBE比普通的家用VR更吸引人,原因是用户“在一个真正渲染出来的世界里,是一个实实在在的人物,而且可以用所有感官和其他人交流”。

VR信徒的期望是LBE等概念能为VR(以及AR和MR)全面得到应用闯出一条路来,就像电影院引出了其他观影方式一样。Dreamscape Immersive的票价为20美元,和平均电影票价相差不大,只是它的观看时间要短得多,只有20分钟左右。在不断壮大的LBE公司群体中,The Void收费最高。它在美国、加拿大等四个国家设有11家门店。该公司时长30分钟的《Secrets of the Empire》体验收费35美元,参与者会在一个岩浆四溢的星球上潜入银河帝国基地并和帝国冲锋队战斗(该影片获得了星球大战及其他迪士尼重磅IP授权)。The Void等公司也在推动VR向前发展,因为它们让消费者有机会以低价来体验这项技术。Gartner研究部门分析师阮祥指出:“它降低了投资门槛。”

The thought for some is that perhaps it’s more compelling to enhance our world than to replace it or create a new one. While stand-alone consumer AR glasses are still a ways away because the technology is less developed than VR, AR is already widely available on smartphones, thanks to Apple’s release of a set of software development tools enabling easy-to-use applications. The tech has proved popular with retailers, for example, including Target, Walmart, and Bed Bath & Beyond, each of which has incorporated AR features into its iPhone app to help shoppers visualize purchases.

The pivot from VR to AR is particularly noticeable in venture capital trends. “I’m equally interested in both, but as an investor, I’m forced to have to pay attention to where the customer and market opportunity and demand is,” Mullins says. “Two years ago, VR appeared to have more excitement and scale behind it. But then Apple essentially enabled 300 million–plus devices and growing.” Indeed, in 2016, VR’s peak venture year, VCs pumped $857 million into VR startups, according to SuperData; AR and MR, or mixed reality—which allows virtual imagery to actually interact with the real world—received just $455 million combined. But in 2018, the equation had flipped: VR funding was down to $280 million, while AR/MR jumped to $859 million.

Another burgeoning approach has found its way back to the original promise of VR: entertainment. This compelling commercial application is called “location-based entertainment,” or LBE. A crop of companies are operating what is essentially a cross between an arcade and a movie theater, with a dash of theme park. These are brick-and-mortar venues where participants use virtual reality in custom-designed spaces, freely moving alongside a small group of fellow participants who appear to each other as avatars when wearing VR headsets manufactured by Oculus, HTC, and others. Some of these experiences play out more like games, with participants wielding plastic-model guns. Others are more like a narrative film that viewers interact with. LBE experiences offer another advantage over headset-bound, individual VR uses. They further immerse users by having them strap on haptic equipment that vibrates. Some venues even feature fans, sprinklers, and heaters to simulate conditions such as wind, water, or heat.

Dreamscape Immersive is a Los ¬Angeles–based LBE “exhibitor” that’s raised $36 million from the likes of 21st Century Fox, Warner Bros., and AMC. It hopes to entice customers with immersive narratives, a kind of interactive moviegoing experience, says Hollywood veteran Walter Parkes, a Dreamscape cochairman. Parkes says he finds LBE more compelling than typical in-home VR—in other words, a single user wearing a headset—because users are an “actual character in a real, rendered world with other people able to be in touch with all of [their] senses.”

The hope among VR adherents is that concepts like LBE will act as a gateway to overall VR (and AR and MR) adoption, in the same way cinemas begot additional ways to watch movies. Dreamscape charges $20 for its experiences, not too far off the average price of a movie ticket, though its run times are much shorter, at around 20 minutes. The Void, the most expansive of a burgeoning collection of LBE companies, with 11 locations in four countries including the U.S. and Canada, charges about $35 for its 30-minute Secrets of the Empire experience, in which you get to infiltrate an Imperial base and shoot Stormtroopers on a molten-lava planet. (The firm has rights to Star Wars and other blockbuster Disney intellectual property.) Businesses like The Void also move VR forward because they make it possible for consumers to experience the technology without spending serious ¬money. “It takes down that investment barrier to entry,” says Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at Gartner research.

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此前我已经体验了许多VR产品。Oculus的、HTC的、谷歌的、电影、视频游戏以及职业仿真培训。总会有人帮助我戴上头盔,帮助我为这些体验做好准备。但体验开始后这些人就消失了。尽管我会在新的现实中看到其他人或别的东西,尽管我仍然有可能听到原来的现实中有人在说话,但我总是独自一人。

进入Dreamscape Immersive设在洛杉矶Westfield购物中心的外星人公园时,我正在想人们通常会怎样描述他们的VR体验。他们会飞越曼哈顿的天际线,潜入太平洋底,或者飞向外太空。而且他们总是用“我”这个词。我现在也在太空中。但这一次明显不同,在这里的不是“我”,而是“我们”。刚才我和伙伴们一起在手上和脚上绑上了闪烁着蓝光的传感器,还背上了装有计算机的背包。我们走进黑暗而且空荡荡的房间,把头盔拉下来遮住眼睛,然后看着队友们一个个地变成虚拟形象。我们的引导员让我们挥手,以表明自己看到了这个令人震撼的现实和虚拟结合的场景。接下来我们开始在这个生机勃勃的星球上捕猎,这里有雷龙那么大的长颈鹿和巨大的正在捕食的螳螂,这些真的让侏罗纪公园变得像一个尼安德特人的世界。这场体验震撼人心,而且绝对物有所值。现在,所有VR需要做的就是说服数以亿计的人们得出同样的结论。(财富中文网)

本文另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2019年7月刊,标题为《VR的兴衰》。

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

I have tried many virtual reality products by now. Oculus’s and HTC’s and Google’s and films and video games and job-¬training simulations. Someone was always there to strap me into the headsets, to prepare me for the experience. And then they were always gone when it started. And I was always alone, even if I saw other people, or things, inside the new reality, even if I could still hear people outside in the old reality.

When I enter the Alien Zoo at Dreamscape, inside a Westfield mall in Los Angeles, I’m thinking about how people typically describe their VR experiences. They fly over the Manhattan skyline or dive into the Pacific or head for outer space. And they always use the word “I.” I, too, am now in space. But there’s a significant difference: It’s not “I”, it’s “we.” Moments ago, my partners and I strapped blue-lit haptic sensors around our hands and feet and slung computer-stuffed backpacks around our shoulders. We stepped into a dark, bare room; slid the headsets over our faces; and watched one another’s bodies transform into human avatars. Our Dreamscape minder instructed us to shake hands to confirm this astonishing mix of the physical and fake, and then we set off for a safari on a vibrant planet occupied by brontosaurus-giraffes and gigantic praying mantises that make Jurassic Park seem positively Neanderthal. It’s a mind-¬blowing experience—and absolutely worth paying for. Now all virtual reality needs to do is to persuade hundreds of millions of people to arrive at the same conclusion.

A version of this article appears in the July 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Fall and Rise of VR.”

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