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    Facebook首席执行官马克•扎克伯格认为虚拟现实是“下一个平台”。为了证明自己所言非虚,Facebook近日以20亿美元天价收购了创业公司Oculus VR,在沉寂多年的虚拟现实界掀起惊涛骇浪。

    Oculus位于加州门罗帕克市,此次收购无疑使这家公司成为三维数字虚拟技术领域的佼佼者。但喧嚣之后,我们不禁还是要问几个关键的问题:虚拟现实技术在Oculus公司21岁的首席执行官帕尔默•勒奇出生之前就已经诞生了,为什么一直发展到今天仍然没有成熟?从Facebook方面来看,扎克伯格对虚拟现实的格外高看是否正确?收购Oculus会成为他在收购方面的又一次滑铁卢吗?

    虚拟现实技术过去三十年停滞不前的主要原因有三个。时至今日,虚拟现实仍然是计算资源密集型技术,平常家用的PC机、手机和游戏机完全无法应对。所以,这项技术欠缺移动性。而且,这项技术本身发展也曾举步维艰,由于缺乏高分辨率显示技术和精确的头戴式追踪设备,虚拟现实技术难以创造栩栩如生的虚拟体验。

    不过,近年来随着高性能微处理器的突破,移动宽带技术的爆炸式发展和移动传感技术的进步,虚拟现实技术正在大踏步前进。

    斯坦福大学虚拟人类接触实验室(Virtual Human Interaction Lab)主任杰瑞米•拜伦森说:“就在两年前,虚拟现实技术还在以龟速前进。从技术角度而言,硬件设备的重量越来越轻,效果更逼真,造价更便宜。从软件角度而言,我们已跨过了转折点。”

    那么,Oculus——或者规模比它大得多的竞争对手索尼(Sony)——为什么还不能确定什么时候推出可堪大用的虚拟现实平台?拜伦森称,部分原因在于性能和价格之间的权衡。

    拜伦森说:“包括索尼和Oculus在内,几十家显示公司都在竞争,希望成为业界的标杆。”而扎克伯格收购Oculus的几周前曾与他碰面,他送了一本自己的大作《无限现实》给扎克伯格,这本书正是写给本科生和初学者的虚拟现实入门教材。拜伦森还补充说:“我认为虚拟现实有可能改变教育、预防医学,以及几乎所有能想到的领域。”

    虚拟现实技术有无数应用——军事训练、医疗保健等等——但最直接的潜力在于价值千亿美元的游戏产业,玩家们十分乐意以新奇的方式体验游戏。

    这也许是Facebook对Oculus感兴趣的最主要原因。作为一家社交网站,Facebook利用自己的平台在休闲游戏领域大获成功,同时还催生了数家大型游戏公司,星佳(Zynga)就是其中之一。难道扎克伯格认为虚拟现实是下一个大势所趋?  

    弗雷斯特研究公司(Forrester Research)分析师詹姆斯•麦克奎维说:“Facebook收购Oculus似乎更多的是出于恐惧,而非真正的业务需要。Facebook错过了向移动技术的转型,感觉Facebook的高管们似乎发誓绝不再错过任何重大转型。然而,与移动技术不同,虚拟现实永远只能是小众技术,即便它最终能发展成非常令人兴奋的小众技术。”

    麦克奎维表示,这是因为,虚拟现实仍然受限于其硬件规模和相应内容的匮乏,最重要的是,它还受限于人的五种感官的极限值。试图将虚拟现实移植到社会领域,就更不靠谱了。

    麦克奎维称:“你的Facebook好友短期内肯定不会发布虚拟现实内容。这使得社交媒体和虚拟现实之间的匹配不那么显而易见。”

    这已有先例:10年前,林登实验室(Linden Lab)推出的第二人生(Second Life)游戏为玩家们营造了一个3D虚拟世界。用户在这个世界里可自定义角色,还能进行社交活动。林登实验室本身和它的理念一时间备受关注,但这款游戏在鼎盛时期也仅有10万玩家同时在线,最终未能被普遍接受。

    如今的虚拟现实技术要先进得多,也更有可能被广泛采用,但也可能面临同样的命运:只对小众具有吸引力。高德纳(Gartner)研究分析师布赖恩•布劳说:“我可以告诉你们,沉浸式虚拟现实不是移动设备之后的下一个大平台。我们认为可穿戴设备非常重要。但不仅限于头戴式显示器,还包括手表、健康追踪器,甚至联网的家电和汽车。”但即便如此,可穿戴设备仍有很长的路要走。

    布劳说:“如今,Oculus仅仅是一款头戴式显示器产品,而不是一个内容体系。我们知道,未来真正驱动虚拟现实生态系统向前发展的是内容。因此,我们要想看到虚拟现实平台出现,还有很多整合工作要做。”
       
 原文:
 
    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes virtual reality as the "platform of tomorrow." To back that assertion up, his company in March bought the small firm Oculus VR for $2 billion, sparking a frenzy around VR that hasn't been seen in years.

    There's no arguing that the purchase puts the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company at the forefront of the technology, which digitally simulates a three-dimensional world. But several key questions remain despite the buzz over the deal: Why is it that, after being in development longer than Oculus's 21-year-old CEO Palmer Luckey has been alive, VR technology is still not ready for prime time? And on Facebook's (FB) part, is Zuckerberg even right in targeting VR as the next big technology to watch -- or is he just setting himself up for another disappointing purchase?

    There are three primary reasons for VR's arrested development over the past three decades. Until recently, virtual reality technology has always needed more computational power than was readily available on home PCs, mobile phones, and gaming consoles. For that same reason, it lacked mobility. And the technology itself has lagged somewhat, lacking sufficient resolution and head-tracking capabilities to create a truly convincing virtual experience.

    Technologists have largely overcome these obstacles in the last few years, thanks to faster microchips, an explosion in broadband infrastructure, and a proliferation in the use of sensors in mobile devices.

    "The technology has been moving at a crawl up until two years ago," says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. "From a technological standpoint, the hardware is becoming lighter, more realistic, and cheaper. From a software standpoint, we have passed the tipping point."

    So why won't Oculus -- or Sony (SNE), its much larger competitor -- commit to a release date for a VR platform that is ready for prime time? The trade-off between performance and price may be partly to blame, Bailenson says.

    "There are dozens of display companies, including Sony and Oculus, who are racing to be the standard," he says. Bailenson says he met with Zuckerberg a few weeks before he bought Oculus and gave the billionaire a copy of his book Infinite Reality, a VR primer for undergraduates and novices. "I think VR has the potential to transform education, preventative medicine, and just about every domain imaginable," he adds.

    There are myriad applications for the technology -- military training, health care, etc. -- but the most immediate potential lies in the $100 billion video game industry, where consumers are welcoming of a novel, new way to experience titles.

    This is perhaps the strongest reason underscoring Facebook's interest in Oculus. The social company has seen great success in using its platform for ** gaming, and has given birth to several large companies -- Zynga (ZNGA) among them -- because of it. Does Zuckerberg think that VR is the next wave?   

    "Facebook's acquisition of Oculus seems motivated more by fear than by good business alignment," Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey says. "Facebook missed the shift to mobile, and it feels like Facebook executives have sworn to never miss another big shift again. Only unlike mobile, virtual reality will only ever be a niche, even if it eventually becomes a very exciting one."

    That's because virtual reality is still constrained by the size of its hardware, the lack of content for it, and above all, the saturation limits of your five senses, McQuivey says. Try to graft that onto a social experience, and the proposition becomes even more fraught.

    "Your Facebook friends certainly won't be developing virtual reality content anytime soon," McQuivey says, "which makes the fit between social media and virtual reality less than obvious."

    It has been done before: 10 years ago, Linden Lab's Second Life came to market with a 3-D virtual world where users could customize an avatar and socialize with each other. The company and concept received much attention for a time, but peaked at fewer than 100,000 concurrent users, ultimately failing to achieve broad adoption.

    Today's VR technology, while far more sophisticated and more likely to see broader adoption, also risks the same fate: niche appeal. "I can tell you that immersive VR is not the next big platform after mobile," Gartner research analyst Brian Blau says. "We see wearable devices as very important, but it's not just limited to head-mounted displays. It includes products like watches, fitness trackers, or even connected devices such as home appliances and cars."And even then, it's a long-term play at best.

    "Today, Oculus is only an HMD product," Blau says. "It's not a content system, and we know that it's content that will actually drive any VR ecosystem forward. So many more pieces need to come together before we see the emergence of a VR platform."   

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