- Disney’s Apple Vision Pro partnership has stoked excitement and concern at the media company.
- Insiders doubted whether the features Disney touted will ever be developed after big budget cuts.
- Some compared Disney’s new tech and product team, which works across verticals, to the company’s derided DMED division.
Apple Vision Pro’s big rollout on June 5 generated a lot of excitement — but some Disney insiders now question whether the features that were teased will actually be delivered.
As part of the announcement of Apple’s futuristic mixed-reality headset, Disney CEO Bob Iger revealed that Disney+ content would be available on the device from day one.
Iger touted how the headset will let you watch movies and TV on a massive virtual screen in environments like space, or drop you right into the action like in an underwater tour. He also showed off how VR could change the way fans watch sports, bringing them courtside and letting them choose camera angles on the action.
The appearance at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference was a much-needed win for Iger after massive headcount and budget cuts since his return as Disney’s CEO in November.
But an innovation team that worked on Disney’s Apple Vision Pro offering is being disbanded, with its founder and leader exiting the company as part of the cuts. Insider spoke to five current and recently exited Disney insiders about hopes and concerns regarding the Vision Pro project and the future of innovation at the company.
The Product Advanced Innovation Team was founded in 2022 under Dave Lankford and used VR, AR, AI, and other tech to develop products and experiences. Disney’s Vision Pro partnership was its latest project.
Disney’s announcement at Apple’s WWDC was vague by design; as with any splashy tech rollout, some features that were promised may not happen. But inside Disney, there’s pressure to deliver on the innovative offering just as staff and resources are being scaled back.
Other innovation projects have been canceled or put on ice as part of the company’s broader cuts, and developing anything interesting is now “in major jeopardy,” one insider said.
The innovation team cuts along with Disney’s axing earlier this year of its metaverse team — known as Next Generation Storytelling and Consumer Experiences — and the Advanced Research Team under Dirk Van Dall have left some insiders feeling that while Netflix and Apple are grabbing headlines with moves in gaming and hardware, Disney is stepping back from the new ideas it’s long been associated with, from animation breakthroughs to advances in theme-park rides.
The metaverse team, which was headed by 11-year Disney veteran Mike White, comprised roughly 50 people charged with developing interactive stories in new formats; it was eliminated in March.
“There just doesn’t seem to be room for novelty and rebellious innovation,” as a second insider put it.
A source with knowledge of Disney’s Vision Pro work said it’s still ongoing and that there are other teams at Disney still working on that project.
Insiders also shared concerns about a new structure that was put in place under Aaron LaBerge, who was given oversight of tech and product after streaming CTO Jeremy Doig left in February.
People described LaBerge’s structure as a shared-services model where staff previously assigned to specific platforms or projects will work across different Disney verticals and businesses. “Everyone works on everything,” a third insider said.
While centralizing services is a common strategy for companies seeking efficiencies to cut costs, this move at Disney hit a nerve with some insiders because it smacks of Disney’s controversial former centralized content and distribution force, or DMED. A legacy of Iger’s predecessor Bob Chapek, DMED was widely hated internally and by Disney’s creative partners in Hollywood. One of Iger’s first moves when he returned as CEO was to disband it.
Some Disney insiders worry the new structure under LaBerge will generate the same tensions caused by DMED and could undermine the people who are in charge of various projects and platforms. The setup has been pitched internally as a way to get people to think about serving Disney customers across its vast array of platforms and products — from ESPN to Marvel to National Geographic — and make sure there’s a unified approach to allocating resources.
But some question if this thinking will pay off, given how differently a typical consumer perceives these diverse brands.
“We solved one problem caused by DMED,” the second insider said. “But now we’re creating another situation.”
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