A whole new world: Disney is latest firm to announce metaverse plans

Heigh-ho it's off to the metaverse we go – if Walt Disney gets its way. The home of Mickey Mouse and Princess Elsa has revealed it is planning to join the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft in the metaverse.

The new tech concept, a blending of the physical and digital worlds where people can interact virtually, is becoming a multibillion-dollar fixation for Silicon Valley executives, including the Facebook founder who is staking his company's future on its success.

And now Hollywood is taking note too, according to the Disney chief executive, Bob Chapek, who said on Wednesday the company was preparing to take the leap into virtual reality.

Referring to Disney's history of innovation in storytelling, which includes the Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie, one of the first to feature synchronised sound, Chapek said: "The Walt Disney Company has a long track record as an early adopter in the use of technology to enhance the entertainment experience."

Disney's former executive vice-president of digital, Tilak Mandadi, wrote a LinkedIn post in 2020 about creating a theme park metaverse, where the "physical and digital world converge" through wearable devices and mobile phones.

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The metaverse concept also includes augmented reality, where elements of the digital world are layered on top of reality, such as the Pokémon Go game, which is played on mobile phones or Facebook's recent smart glasses tie-up with Ray-Ban.

Speaking during the company's quarterly corporate results call, Chapek added: "Our efforts to date are merely a prologue to a time when we'll be able to connect the physical and digital worlds even more closely, allowing for storytelling without boundaries in our own Disney metaverse."

Chapek gave no specific details of Disney's plans on the results call, in keeping with a concept that is still very much in its early stages across the tech industry. But he indicated in a further interview on CNBC on Wednesday that the company's Disney+ streaming service would be involved. In the interview, Chapek said he saw it as an extension of Disney+, through the "three-dimensional canvas" he envisions for new types of storytelling, which could involve a cast of characters that ranges from Mickey Mouse to Snow White, Iron Man and Luke Skywalker.

Disney+, which has 118 million subscribers to Netflix's 214 million, has already launched a number of hit franchise spin-offs such as Star Wars adventure The Mandalorian and the Avengers series Wandavision. However, that subscriber total represented a shortfall on market expectations, with analysts anticipating Disney+ would reach 125 million users in its latest results. Netflix has also reported slowing subscriber growth as the relaxation of lockdown measures renews the appeal of out-of-home entertainment – and forces executives to consider new ways of boosting sign-ups.

However, some of Disney's digital ventures have struggled. Its online children's social network, Club Penguin, was closed in 2017 a decade after its launch. Its $563m (£420m) purchase of Playdom in 2010, which marked the company's entry into social gaming, had its value written down. Disney also struggled with Maker Studios, a YouTube network it bought for $500m in 2014.

Mark Zuckerberg has been the most prominent exponent of the metaverse. His notion of the concept, revealed last month in a presentation where he announced the rebranding of Facebook's corporate name to Meta, is of avatars – or digital representations of people – meeting in the virtual realm by donning VR headsets (Meta owns the Oculus VR headset business). His executives, including PR chief Nick Clegg and product boss Chris Cox, now take their weekly team meetings in the metaverse, via the company's Horizon Workrooms product. But the company has made clear that a fully fledged virtual world, where friends can meet to try on clothes or attend pop concerts, is a decade or more away.

Microsoft is introducing a metaverse for office workers via its Teams product, whose services include hosting video meetings. In the first half of next year Teams users will be able to appear as avatars in online meetings – appearing as a cartoon in their bit of the screen if they so wish. Teams is used by 250 million people once a month, which gives Microsoft an influential role in shaping the corporate metaverse.

Game-makers Roblox and Epic, the producer of Fortnite, are also working on their own metaverses and Zuckerberg envisages the metaverse as an array of virtual worlds that are meshed together, with people's individual avatars wandering between them.

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