At a conference last month, I experienced the virtual reality equivalent of bungee jumping: a “pit” demo. Wearing a high-end headset in a booth that tracked my movement, I walked a metal plank above a virtual floor. At the command of the exhibitor – who worked with a VR design company called WorldViz – the plank rose high into the air.

“What happens if I jump off?” I said.

“Well, let’s see.”

He turned me towards the edge. My brain knew that I wasn’t in any danger, that I did this in video games all the time, but my body wouldn’t agree. I hesitated, looking at the floor 20 feet below. It can’t hurt you, I thought. I leaned and took a step forward.

My foot scuffed the carpet as my virtual body fell, and I realized that I was surprised. It was like walking in the dark towards what you thought was a staircase and hitting the flat floor instead. A standard Oculus Rift game is mediated by a controller. But having to take the step myself, to move through physical space overlaid with a virtual counterpart, was a truly harrowing experience. For the rest of the conference, I occasionally glanced over at the booth. Other attendees seemed just as hesitant as I had been.

To use an excellent comparison by Stanford VR researcher Jeremy Bailenson, the pit demo is VR’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat – the 50-second 1895 film of an oncoming train whose realism supposedly shocked audiences so badly they ran out of the theater. But while it’s unclear whether that’s more than a legend, the shock of VR is here today. There’s never been a more interesting time to discuss the implications of a technology that could trick us into thinking its world is real. Will isolation and simulator sickness lead to the cycle of “mistrust, misunderstanding, and censorship” that smothered comics and arcades? How will we deal with pornography and extreme murder simulators? And is VR basically “a rapid hit of speed, heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, and cocaine”?

Sure, that’s always possible, but it’s helpful to remember that we’ve been through this fear and wonder before. Not with comics, or arcades, or video games. With virtual reality. Twenty years ago.