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Disney details how VR, AIs, robotics will shape its stories of the future

VR, artificial intelligence and robotics are projects normally linked to a tech innovator rather than a media conglomerate, but Disney is currently working on all three in an attempt to adapt its stories to emerging mediums.

There’s more momentum at the company to merge its creative sensibilities with its technological ones amid great disruption to how people consume its content on screens and in their hands. Organisationally, the arrival of John Frelinghuysen as EVP of digital media strategy and business development three months ago alongside the recent integration of its Interactive division and consumer products are testament to that urgency.

Add to that, Bob Iger’s order to 400 of the company’s top executives that they have a “love affair” with tech and it’s no surprise that the company is at CES detailing projects that wouldn’t look out of place in one of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest. It can do this because unlike its peers, Disney has the luxury of producing most of its tech in-house, an advantage it has used to generate over 100 million monthly visits across its sites and 88 apps. All that tech and knowledge of its users is being used to help carve out spaces in alternative tech.

It’s developing an algorithm, that Jon Snoddy, EVP of Walt Disney Imagineering said was as “far out on the forefront of science that you can get...It’s that way of pulling our artists and scientists together that’s how we roll. We can go much farther by collaborating across disciplines.

While he didn’t share any details of what it would do, he did say the presence of tech like machine learning, robotics and augmented reality were becoming more commonplace in its parks because of the ability to immerse fans in an experience. He went on to tease an upcoming ride that’s being developed with ILM, the special effects house Disney acquired when it purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 to create a ride that’s “unprecedented”.

“It will be a boat ride where the boats are controlled down to millimeters to precisely align them frame by frame to this ILM giant projection that will be able to determine exactly where peoples’ eye are to give a sense of depth in 3D,’ he explained of the upcoming addition to its theme parks that will mix projection with real sets.

“When you build a theme park attraction, you’re building a massive device.”

VR, one of the most talked about technologies at this year’s CES, has also piqued the interest of the business. Frelinghuysen said he saw a lot of application for virtual experiences for news content and live events via its ABC business and revealed that there was already advertiser and sponsor demand to be associated with innovations in the space.

However, as many attendees at this year’s CES have attested, VR is still in its infancy, with crude interfaces, high price points and a dearth of strong case studies holding it back in the short-term.

Another area of strategic focus for Disney this year is apps. With more than 80 to its name, the media owner is all too aware that such a broad portfolio is unfeasible and plans to whittle them down.

“We’re moving to a model where we need to get our apps down to a fewer number,” said Frelinghuysen. Eventually this will mean more “content and more experiences” within fewer apps, he added. Early tests of this strategy can be seen through the launch of its own version of Netflix – Disney Now – last November. The digital subscription service lets fans access thousands of films, songs, books and programmes from its back catalogue.

Alongside all the technological innovations it’s working, Disney is gradually getting its head around the fact that (relatively) recently acquired brands like Marvel and Star Wars mean its pulling in a wider and often older audience than it has previously catered for.