Virtual reality is growing at an enormous pace, and while we live in a time where more than a million monthly Gear VR users actively consume VR content, and dedicated VR shops pop up in China—it’s no wonder that a megalithic film studio like Disney is getting involved with their latest foray into the world of virtual reality, Disney Movies VR, a SteamVR app that ties all of the company’s VR content into one place.

Allowing HTC Vive and Oculus Rift users to peruse through rendered VR spaces and 360 videos, the platform currently hosts content from some of Disney’s hottest films, including The Jungle Book (2016), Star Wars: Episode VII (2015), and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Great right?

I know what you’re thinking: “Disney makes incredibly polished and engaging stuff. I can’t wait to see their take on VR!” And that’s where you might come away a little disappointed.

It’s turns out that Disney Movie VR is actually a surprisingly mediocre collection of commercials—and if you ever find yourself lost on the concept of ‘brand engagement‘, you’ll walk away from the app with a much better understanding. To be clear, I don’t have anything against brand engagement in principle—but when it’s so transparent and from a studio that’s actually leading big investments in VR, it feels like the medium is being treated more like a dumping ground for marketing material than what Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash calls “the final platform.”

That said, the user experience is one of the most engaging I’ve seen in VR, housing animated dioramas that celebrate each film by activating a little tableau when you gaze over at them. It’s when you get to the content itself that you start to feel a little off kilter.

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Red Carpet Debuts and Cast Interviews

The video quality itself is middle of the road for monoscopic 360 video—so not that good, either downloaded or streaming—but my gripe deviates somewhat from the usual ‘I can’t see well enough’ argument which sadly persists in all of the downloadable 360 videos in Disney’s app. Immersive video of The Jungle Book and Captain America: Civil War red carpet debuts came off as slightly unsettling.

Although there’s a clear benefit to seeing extra information, like an actor’s name overlayed floating above their heads to remind you who they are, or a screen playing a trailer behind your head, I couldn’t help but fixate on the throngs of photographers nearby—working schlubs like you and me—trying to get the perfect snap of the movies’ starring cast. The low resolution of the video—again, not my chief complaint—naturally drew my attention to people closer to me, so instead of watching publicists drag around movie stars to get their pictures taken, I focused on the photographers and their heated desperation to get a good shot. But even with theoretically perfect video quality, I’d probably still be more fascinated by the crowd than people posing for pictures—and only just. I’m truly at a loss for words why Disney thinks this is engaging on any level.

nokia-ozo-on-mount
See Also: Disney Signs Nokia Deal to Use OZO VR Camera

The round table interview with the cast of The Jungle Book however, conducted by The Nerdist’s affable host Chris Hardwick, was decidedly much more engaging than the red carpet debuts, and felt like a natural way to watch 6 people speak from the POV of VR headset. As a proof of concept, the Q and A session was a triumph from a technical standpoint, but came off just as manicured and canned as an E! News interview (by no fault of Hardwick’s).

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The only piece of content for Captain America: Civil War was the red carpet debut—but that will likely change as Disney plugs more Marvel films on the platform.

Star Wars 3D 360

Ever since I saw Star Wars Jakku Spy published on Google Cardboard late last year, and the Star Wars Jakku Desert Racer video published on Facebook as a part of the inauguration of the social network’s first 360 videos, I wondered what it would be like to view them both in a proper VR headset, and was desperately hoping that they would be the rendered versions and not the pre-rendered 3D 360 versions better served for mobile GPUs. This is sadly not the case.

It seems that the Jakku Spy app, a string of interlaced videos that follows the lovable BB-8 on a spy mission, was directly ported over to Disney Movie VR, and the Jakku Desert Racer video, which takes you through a windswept tour of the dusty planet, was similarly dropped into the app without any increase in visual fidelity. What’s more, Jakku Desert Racer actually suffers from a massively overblown scale of perspective, making you feel much too large in the world and the ships and characters in it much too small.

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book‘s experience Trust in Me—the only rendered experience at the time of this writing—is by far the best in the lot, featuring the film’s giant snake Kaa who slinks down to the your tree branch and hypnotizes you into trusting her. It’s a short 45 seconds, but sweet a experience none the less that feels strangely personal—although it could just be the sultry and alluring voice of Scarlett Johansson that has me willing to hand over the keys of my car so she’ll keep calling me a “poor, sweet little cub.”

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the jungle book vr disney

The second Jungle Book experience is a pre-rendered 3D 360 video that introduces Mowgli to Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), and while we’d be happier with the actual rendered experience at our fingertips—albeit at a lower quality—this again felt much more personal than riding on a speeder or watching BB-8 roll around in different places.

The Jungle Book’s experiences are really the sorts of things fans  like to do in VR, and they’re natural extensions of CG-heavy films. If Disney can deliver more (and more lengthy) rendered experiences like Trust in Me—that necessarily keep positional tracking intact—then I can see myself revisiting the app, and maybe even showing it to people I know.

As for live action films; behind-the-scenes footage, cast meetings, rendered extras like Starbreeze’s John Wick experience for Vive, or Kite & Lightning’s Insurgent experience for Oculus Rift would all draw more attention than the weird and uncomfortable red carpet 360 videos and short clips we’re seeing now. Hopefully with Disney’s Nokia OZO, which was licensed recently so they can create ‘special VR content’ for upcoming films, the content will change to reflect this.

Until that day arrives though, I’m going to be skipping Disney Movies VR faster than pre-roll YouTube ads.

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  • John Ellenich

    I actually had my first “VR Sickness” using their app. I immediately jumped into the Star Wars content, downloaded the high quality version.

    The compression was awful and I started to feel really weird/queasy when I attempted to walk around and realized that I was just inside a giant sphere and my POV didn’t actually move with me.

    Super disappointing and I hope other people don’t have this as their first VR experience.

    • RavnosCC

      Agreed, the ported stuff w/fixed perspective threw me for a loop at first as well. The entire world shifts away from as you walk towards it… not inviting, not well thought out, and definitely NOT designed to take advantage of the Vive’s room scale/resolution or hand presence. Very disappointed in the Lucas and Marvel stuff so far. The jungle book, on the other hand, did feel incredibly “real”. More of that, less of the poor quality ports.

      My only reason to download it in the first place is the hope that Disney will make the “Trials of Tatooine” available through this interface shortly as I’ve heard that’s designed for the likes of the Vive from the get-go.

    • yag

      Why did you tried to walk in a 360, non-real time, video ? -_-

  • sfmike

    It’s another example of how Disney will spend as little money as possible on any project that isn’t, in their minds, guaranteed to make a HUGE profit. Their mediocre excursion into home 3D should be a warning, as soon as they realized they weren’t going to make big bucks on 3DTV, without any real promotion, they dropped it and now Disney Home Video doesn’t even release most of the Disney features on Blu-ray 3D. I think they are taking the same lazy view of VR. Put some intern on this project and if it doesn’t turn into a billion dollar income stream axe it at once.

  • DiGiCT Ltd

    It’s the same issue as with games, you could be good on 2d devices but VR takes all the skills back to zero.
    All concepts need to be build from ground up, else just all the same sickness everywhere.
    Developers simply forget that VR is something totally different to deploy.

    A good example for a good VR short movie is the one with the rose on steam (for free).
    Its totally designed in 3D no 360 degree video crap.

    Disney could easy do that with cartoons as they already have the 3d models.
    The problem however is that it takes different workflow and skills, for example you cant add the audio later on as its not a video, its all in realtime .

  • Incredibly disappointed with their Star Wars section. Was easily the worst VR experience I’ve had. Looks like they simply filmed the movie sets in 3D and then added crappy, low resolution animations. If they wanted to put people off VR this would be the way to do it.

  • David Christian

    VRboxoffice.com

  • John Collins

    Agreed. The presentation is pretty slick where each item is activated when you gaze at it. Also like how it senses when you sit down and adjust. I was looking around wondering if they will eventually allow you access to go down stairs. Then I click on the content and it lost me. Think I spent more time looking at the different worlds and watching the train go by then any of the actual videos.