When Apple announced its long-awaited augmented reality headset, Vision Pro, earlier this month, part of the argument was that these “Ready Player One” glasses would change the way we consume entertainment.
With Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger in hand to showcase new visually immersive features in entertainment and sports, it seemed that two of the most well-known brands in the media world were betting on augmented and virtual reality. Imagine seeing digital confetti rain down during a college football game or watching “The Mandalorian” in the desert sands of Tatooine.
Having content from Hollywood studios such as Disney has long been seen as a way to push the virtual reality market into the mainstream after years of false starts in the once-frothy sector. Part of the reason expensive VR headsets have failed to live up to their promise as the future of entertainment is a lack of enticing things for customers to play with.
“Without content, it’s a mansion without furniture,” said Dan Ives, managing director and technology analyst at Wedbush Securities.
But at $3,499 each, Apple’s headphones might not be revealing enough to convince lay consumers that the price is worth it. To a skeptic, the functions that Iger presented might seem like gimmicks.
“When I watch ‘Ted Lasso,’ I want to watch it with my wife, sharing the same screen,” said Wagner James Au, author of the upcoming book Making a Metaverse That Matters.
The Vision Pro has utility, Au said, but seems more geared towards productivity than entertainment. The ideal user might be a Disney employee, not a Disney fan.
The uses that Apple and Disney have come up with so far are a kind of Trojan horse, experts say. Apple’s target audience for high-tech ski goggles isn’t consumers; are other companies. The tech giant needs media brands, entertainment studios and software developers to start embracing this technology so that when customers show up in droves, there’s a pool of unique AR content waiting for them.
“I don’t think it’s a mainstream consumer product right now,” said Brandon Ross, partner and technology analyst at research firm LightShed Partners. Just as it was the iPhone’s vast third-party app store that catapulted these devices into the mainstream, he continued, the Vision Pro “is launching to start building an app ecosystem around it.”
Having 2D video streaming apps like Disney+ built in from the start gives potential users an easy-to-understand example of what the headset can do, Ross said. More interesting, though, will be the media the creatives create specifically for the Vision Pro – content that could only exist in an AR format.
Disney, in particular, could eventually use technology to bring new offerings to fans, enabling Mickey Mouse interactions in children’s living rooms or adding virtual flourishes to in-person theme park experiences. (Was that Iron Man flying over Cinderella Castle?)
The House of Mouse is uniquely suited to adopting this technology, said Matthew Ball, a investor and author of “The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything,” highlighting the brand’s partnerships with the “Fortnite” video game, as well as its innovations in theme park and animation technology.
“Of all media companies, Disney’s IP has the most intuitive appeal” in augmented or virtual reality, Ball said via email. “For decades, children and adults have imagined themselves inside the world of Star Wars or Marvel. … Disney parks are proof of that.”
By decoupling a park like Disneyland from constraints like ride capacity, opening hours or the laws of physics, he continued, this technology could allow for immersive new ways to capitalize on Disney’s intellectual property.
But so far it’s unclear what added value the average viewer would get by ditching their TV set and going all-in with the Vision Pro, said Amy Webb, executive director of the Future Today Institute, a consulting firm.
Unless Disney secretly has a whole new AR-specific media category up its sleeve, it asked, “What will this provide significantly better than the current TV viewing experience?”
In that sense, Apple may have advertised this product as a means of setting the pump for a future the company is trying to build. In other words, a metaverse—that gooey Silicon Valley fad used to describe 3D virtual worlds.
“I just wonder if Apple is envisioning a world where the two-dimensional screen kind of disappears, and the first version of this product is aimed at helping to cross that bridge,” Webb said.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Disney could not immediately make executives available for comment.
The entertainment world is rife with attempts to make augmented or virtual reality headsets a thing.
Magic Leap, at one point the industry wunderkind, switched to a less flashy enterprise approach after its consumer-focused AR headsets underperformed. Meta – the most prominent player in the space before Apple entered – recently cut prices in its Quest line of headphones amid slumping Quest 2 sales, and fought to build a user base for its “Horizon Worlds” virtual environment.
The data suggests that interest in AR and VR headsets fallen in 2022. American teens expressed little interest in technology earlier this year.
“When we were most excited about VR and AR, we had at least four different headset manufacturers, none of which had significant market penetration,” said Jay Tucker, executive director of the Center for Enterprise Management in Media, Entertainment at UCLA Anderson. and Sports. “Imagine trying to create a virtual reality experience. How much would you invest in this, knowing that your audience is the subset of people who bought [one] specific headset?”
(That hasn’t stopped media companies from dipping their toes. NBCUniversal’s streaming service platform Peacock recently became available on Quest headphones.)
Apple wants to seize the chance of a single company being the default device maker for the AR industry, Tucker added, giving developers confidence that there are enough users in the ecosystem to make their investment in original AR content worthwhile.
Deals with companies like Disney can break the ice.
The Apple-Disney partnership isn’t the first time the two companies have worked together either.
Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs became director of Disney largest single shareholder after selling to Pixar. Disney Channel and ABC, which is also owned by Disney, were the first TV networks to put their shows it’s itunesand Disney Studios was the first film studio to release films there.
Iger even said that the two companies may have merged if not for the untimely death of Jobs. Maybe they still can – this time, in the metaverse.