The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) led a recent $65 million round of funding for start-up virtual-reality company Jaunt. Jaunt is just 2 years old, and the recent round of funding makes up about two-thirds of the company's total value, but Jaunt has quickly become a leader in virtual-reality cinema.
The start-up works in two connected areas of VR: It produces short VR videos, and it's been developing an advanced VR camera that can capture 360-degree video. The company says it is working to provide an "end-to-end solution for creating and distributing premium live-action VR."
With the Disney-led round of funding, the company says it will improve its camera hardware and software production tools, with plans to deliver VR content "to the widest array of mobile devices and VR hardware in the industry."
The company said it plans to significantly increase its workforce at its Palo Alto headquarters and its studio operation in Los Angeles.
While companies like Facebook and Google have been drawing most of the recent headlines involving developments in virtual-reality pursuits, the technology also makes sense for Disney for a number of reasons.
In the theater
Movies are the easiest application to see here. And Disney has the type of properties that would lend themselves to immersive viewing: Marvel superhero flicks, Star Wars sequels and spinoffs, Pixar animation. Disney already produced a series of short 360-degree clips to promote its Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, immersing viewers in a 3D world and making them feel as if they are in the action.
But this also might be the area where VR is the biggest question mark. VR cinema is in its earliest of stages, and there's no telling if the technology will catch on, either in theaters or living rooms. Engadget spoke with several film-industry insiders about VR after the Sundance Film Festival in March, and most were skeptical that the technology will take off on any scale. We should remember that 3D video was much-hyped as well, and widespread interest never materialized.
But movies are not the only area where Disney could put VR to use in coming years.
A new VR attraction?
Another area is its theme parks. This wouldn't be a first. Disney World's five-story DisneyQuest attraction was groundbreaking in this area when it opened in 1998, featuring VR video, VR games, and a design-your-own-roller-coaster motion-simulator ride. It drew big crowds in its earlier years, and Disney at one time had even planned on rolling out additional VR attractions in large markets across the U.S.
But the technology at DisneyQuest became outdated over time, and the company plans to shutter the attraction after this season and replace it with an NBA-themed attraction.
New developments in virtual reality would give Disney the chance to start fresh, and again offer visitors VR experiences that are on the bleeding edge. With separate Star Wars-themed attractions planned for Disney World and Disneyland – sure to attract massive interest -- this could be an opportune time.
Sports like you've never experienced them
An intriguing area of Disney's business that could lend itself to VR applications is ESPN. In many ways, sports viewing is a natural fit for VR.
When we watch at home, we like to feel as if we're in the stands. VR could do that. Even better, it could put us on the sidelines. Or on the field, for that matter. Through ESPN and ABC, Disney has a piece of all the major American sports. Jaunt is among the companies that have been dabbling in this space, and its cameras may prove a good fit for delivering fans an immersive sports experience.
Early investments, big possibilities
Disney's investments on this front – in Jaunt and any subsequent spending on its own projects -- will not come without risk. The market for VR video is still in its very early stages, and how it will develop is anyone's guess. Everyday VR viewing is likely still a long way off, and early attempts could well prove as big a bust as 3D video has to date.
But early investments like the one in Jaunt are worth making. Inside Disney's diverse entertainment empire, possible applications abound.