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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.