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Disney Leads $66 Million Investment In Virtual-Reality Startup Jaunt VR

Hollywood is ramping up on VR in the months before Oculus and other hardware hits the market.

[Photo: courtesy of JauntVR]

The Walt Disney Company is among the lead investors in virtual-reality startup Jaunt VR’s $66 million Series C round of funding. It's the latest evidence that Hollywood wants in on VR before the technology is widely available.

Silicon Valley-based Jaunt has developed an end-to-end cinematic virtual-reality content-creation platform that includes a custom camera capable of shooting high-end, professional-quality 360-degree footage, software for stitching the footage together, a distribution system, and a Los Angeles VR production studio. It announced the funding today.

CAA-backed Evolution Media Capital and China Media Capital joined Disney as lead investors in the round, which brings Jaunt’s total funding to more than $100 million.

Jens Christensen, Jaunt’s CEO, told Fast Company the company will use the new funding to scale up its existing operations and to bolster its growth around the world.

Jaunt is hoping to become the platform of choice for the filmmakers, advertisers, entertainers, and others who are increasingly producing videos and movies using 360-degree virtual reality. Among those already using its technology are musician Paul McCartney, film director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy), and The North Face apparel company.

The new funding comes at a time when cinematic VR is gaining a bigger foothold across a variety of industries. It's been used to shoot everything from concerts to adventure sports to short narrative stories. After April’s catastrophic earthquake in Nepal, a dramatic VR film shot by the media company RYOT and narrated by Susan Sarandon showcased the medium’s storytelling potential by letting viewers see the impact of the disaster on the Himalayan nation.

Last week, Disney-owned ABC News unveiled a VR storytelling "experience," produced in conjunction with Jaunt, that takes viewers to Damascus, Syria, where they can see a 360-degree view of life on the streets of that war-torn country. According to Christensen, that project was unrelated to the new funding.

With its new funding, Christensen says Jaunt will continue to focus on its hardware; the "hardcore computational photography software pipeline" its partners use to process their footage; apps for any VR device, from the Oculus Rift to mobile headsets like Samsung’s GearVR; and its Studio program.

He added that the company plans on scaling up all four areas as VR hardware edges closer to mainstream adoption. Next year, Facebook-owned Oculus is expected to release the consumer version of the Rift, and other companies’ offerings will also hit the market. As more consumers get their hands on VR gear, it will be essential that there be plenty of content. And while games will likely make up the bulk of that in the early stages, it’s clear there’s plenty of potential for cinematic offerings as well.

Jaunt is also planning on using its new funding, particularly with the help of its Chinese investor, as well as European media companies ProSieben and Axel Springer SE, to broaden its reach into those parts of the world. Christensen says he sees China as a "tremendously huge market" for VR, with Europe also presenting a major expansion opportunity, both in terms of consumers and filmmaking talent.

Feature Films?

There have already been attempts at making feature VR films. But notwithstanding Disney’s lead role in the funding round, Christensen says he doesn’t think the studio’s interest is about getting into the production of feature-length virtual-reality films, at least not yet.

"I do expect people to start doing more and more in VR, [and] eventually people will be doing feature-length entertainment," he says. "Right now, with the state of the devices, I don’t think people will want to wear [bulky headsets] for two-hour features. They need to get a lot lighter."

For now, he says, Jaunt’s focus, and that of its partners, is largely on shorter VR content, usually in the three- to five-minute range.

"Jaunt has distinguished itself as a true leader in the field of cinematic virtual reality, an emerging medium with incredible potential across all sectors of entertainment," Kevin Mayer, senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the Walt Disney Company, said in a statement. "Jaunt’s unique end-to-end solution for producing and publishing high-quality VR experiences is cutting edge, and we are excited about its future potential."

Rick Hess, the founder and co-managing partner of Evolution Media Capital, agreed.

"Evolution is making investments in companies that are not just innovating, but actually responsible for the massive shift we are all seeing," Hess says. "The business of media and content will be totally different in a few years, and companies like Jaunt will drive that change."

One Hollywood insider who advises people in the virtual-reality industry suggested to Fast Company that Disney’s interest in Jaunt likely stems from its interest in accessing the company’s end-to-end production system.

"We’re so early in the creation of this new medium from the storytelling perspective that the filmmakers playing around in this space are going through the process of experimentation of what is storytelling," the adviser says. "To do that, you need a camera that is going to [stitch together 360-degree footage] and ultimately pump out a good image."

Jaunt, he adds, has one of the few cameras capable of doing that to Hollywood standards. The company’s full production pipeline can overcome what is otherwise too expensive and time-consuming for professional filmmakers.

Other Hollywood studios are also experimenting with VR, the adviser notes. For example, Twentieth Century Fox produced a short VR film based on the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild. "All the major studios have greenlit some experience," he says. However, it’s mostly been in the "education phase," rather than full-scale production, given that consumer virtual-reality hardware has yet to flood the market.

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