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Disney Invests in Jaunt as Part of $65 Million Round That Makes It Highest-Funded VR Startup

The series C was co-led by Disney, Evolution Media Partners and China Media Capital.

Asa Mathat

Cinematic virtual reality startup Jaunt has raised $65 million in new funding, led by Disney and other Hollywood players, which makes it the most-funded independent virtual reality company to date with a total of about $100 million raised so far.

Prior to its $2 billion acquisition by Facebook, Oculus VR had raised $93.4 million, according to Crunchbase. Jaunt says it’s going to use the money to beef up its staffs in both Palo Alto and Santa Monica, Calif., and form new strategic partnerships. Variety had earlier reported the company would be raising money somewhere above $50 million.

The investors tell us a lot about what those partnerships will look like. Jaunt CEO Jens Christensen said one of the round leaders, Disney, offers diverse connections to high-profile targets such as TV media (Jaunt recently produced a video with ABC News) and sports, via ESPN.

“Live [VR] video is an exciting area, especially with types of sports that are more intimate, where you’re up close to action, like basketball, martial arts, boxing and even tennis,” he said. “You can tell how big players are, how fast they’re moving.”

He noted that Jaunt’s past attempts at live broadcasting had required too many compromises in picture quality, but forecasted that it should have new cameras that can handle the computational load by next year. That calls to mind competing VR startup NextVR, which has put live sports front-and-center in its self-promotion.

Jaunt’s past video efforts have been primarily on-demand, most famously including an up-close recording of Sir Paul McCartney performing “Live and Let Die” in San Francisco.

Another leader of the $65 million round was Evolution Media Partners, a growth equity and investment joint venture from TPG Growth, Evolution Media Capital and Participant Media. EMC co-founder Rick Hess told Re/code that the firm’s numerous and deep Hollywood connections will put Jaunt in arm’s reach of major creative talent, and let those creators find new ways to reach fans via VR.

“It’s a bit like when you first had talkies,” Hess said. “The impact there forced filmmakers to think about storytelling in a completely different way. 3-D, what Cameron did with ‘Avatar,’ didn’t force a new type of storytelling. What happened was a lot of cool action films got transferred to 3-D. Now, you have to actually rethink everything.”

That’s a potent claim, as some of virtual reality’s skeptics like to draw links between it and the flop of 3-D televisions just a few years ago. But Hess said Jaunt’s track record with events like the Paul McCartney concert opens up different emotions, and new business lanes.

“I’ve never been one to watch concerts on TV,” he said. “It feels very flat. But I would absolutely sit on the stage at a Grateful Dead show, or on the floor at a Lakers game.”

The last round leader, China Media Capital, points to the simple truth that Asia will have hundreds of millions of people walking around with VR-ready mobile devices. Christensen and Hess both said mobile will be key to Jaunt’s future.

Several mobile VR experiences are already possible today via a smartphone with a Google Cardboard or similar headset. The first high-end mobile virtual reality device, the Samsung Gear VR, is slated for a full consumer launch at the end of this year; Samsung and Gear VR co-developer Oculus are expected to give an update on that rollout at Oculus’ annual conference, Oculus Connect, later this week.

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