Why Disney and Apple’s pricey plan to turn your living room into a multiplex will fail

The Apple Vision Pro will use 'spatial computing' to stream Disney movies in 3D
The Apple Vision Pro will use 'spatial computing' to stream Disney movies in 3D

The Walt Disney Corporation has a lot of problems right now – from poorly performing films through activist shareholder Nelson Peltz trying to oust CEO Bob Iger to the copyright on Mickey Mouse’s debut film Steamboat Willie expiring, prompting at least two slasher horror flicks with Mickey slaughtering college kids out this year.

But Iger is actually really excited – about a content deal with Apple’s incredibly expensive virtual reality headset Apple Vision Pro which starts pre-orders on January 19 and hits the shelves on February 2. In a statement Iger said the tie-in will combine “exceptional creativity with groundbreaking technology to create truly remarkable experiences.”

Disney will supply 3D movies and four “screening environments” – basically meaning you can pretend you’re watching the movies from the cockpit of a landspeeder sitting in the desert on Tatooine or the Avengers Tower.

There are a few niggles here. First, 3D. Second, virtual reality. Third, the Apple Vision Pro. All in all, what’s remarkable is that people are still trying to flog this stuff let alone present it as groundbreaking.

Hollywood has been trying to make 3D happen for years. Its most recent outing – the brief flurry of 3D movies in cinemas between 2009’s Avatar and 2011’s Tintin as well as the even briefer attempt to shoot live football with large, immobile 3D cameras – proved the public found it either nauseating or pointless.

So why mash it together with virtual reality - another product that answered a question literally no consumers were asking? Global shipments for AR/VR devices fell 46 per cent year on year in the second quarter of 2023, the fourth successive quarterly decline.

VR worked exceptionally badly for Facebook when it changed its corporate name to Meta in 2021 to demonstrate its wholehearted immersion in the Metaverse. After losing nearly $30 billion, in March 2023 the company pretended it had always been much more interested in Artificial Intelligence

Apple, meanwhile, is having a poor run of form. Weak sales of the iPhone 15 forced the company to cut its price which may not bode well for the eye-watering $3,499 (approximately £2,762) Apple Vision Pro. Apple’s position is that the price will come down as demand rises, which presupposes demand even exists. And the company refuses to call it VR, preferring the term “spatial computing” which has fooled… Well, at least Bob Iger.

Apple CEO Tim Cook with the Vision Pro
Apple CEO Tim Cook with the Vision Pro - AFP

Full disclosure here. When the format war was raging between VHS and Betamax, your correspondent’s family confidently forked out for the short lived and wildly unsuccessful Philips Video 2000 system. So I have form in overinvesting in unpopular tech.

But let’s take a quick look at all the opportunities we’ve had to “reinvent” the way we watch The Little Mermaid recently and work out how many of them spell good news for Disney:

  • Augmented Reality Instead of putting a headset on, in theory, augmented reality would change everything by overlaying 3D interactive pictures on the physical world as seen through, say, your phone. In particular, Magic Leap – a little known startup that Google invested half a billion dollars in – promised to “transcend what can be contained in a physical product.” In fact, the physical product launched in 2018 was a headset remarkably similar to the Microsoft Holodeck and sold so well that it will no longer be supported at the end of this year.

  • 360-degree movies What is the point of virtual reality if you’re just watching TV with a massive hat on? 360-degree movies were supposed to bring the immersive interactive gaming experience to watching a movie. You too could be in the film. Except film makers struggled to write stories without a narrative arc, audiences felt sick when they turned their head too fast which ruled out action films and VR cinema companies like Jaunt either pulled out of the market or shut down.

  • Google Glass Glasses with cameras that linked to the internet, thus freaking out almost everyone involved. Coined the term “glasshole”. Launched in 2012, it stopped shipping in 2015.

  • 3DTV No one wants to wear stupid 3D glasses when they’re sitting on the sofa. TV screens are too small for the huge 3D effects that sort of work on a cinema screen. Despite a decent selection of 3D Blu-rays to choose from, there are no longer 3DTVs available for purchase. Perhaps the fact that most people reported getting a headache 10 minutes into the film was a bug not a feature.

3DTV somehow failed to catch on
3DTV somehow failed to catch on - Alamy
  • Oculus Rift The first true VR headset soft launched in 2013, then fully released in 2016. Despite heroic ambitions – Ridley Scott was in conversation with the company about a VR movie at one point – it is now just a video game device.

  • Nexus Q A $300 bowling ball that was supposed to stream media, launched in 2012. It could only interact with Google services and had buffering speeds that felt like dial up. It was cancelled in 2013.

To be fair to all of the above Silicon Valley fails, it’s not for the tech nerds to come up with the gripping content and perfect entertainment that will make these bizarre devices worthwhile. That’s Hollywood’s job. So is Disney showing up on Apple actually the one chance we have to make the dream of sitting alone in your room with an enormous block of plastic over your eyes, trying not to move your head too fast finally here?

Well, one Disney film maker has devoted their recent career to pushing the limits of motion capture cameras, 3D scanning and facial capture technology that allows for genuine 3D visuals – James Cameron. In other words, the Apple Vision Pro is perfect for a very specific demographic – incredibly wealthy Avatar fans.

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