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Bob Iger says no to virtual reality headsets at Disney parks, aims for augmented reality instead

Walt Disney Co.’s chief executive has no interest in having theme park visitors strap on virtual reality headsets that block out their view and place them inside a digital world.

Smaller rivals, including Knott’s Berry Farm, SeaWorld and Six Flags, have turned to such virtual reality experiences as an affordable way to spice up rides, but Disney CEO Bob Iger said reality-destroying headsets would be “ersatz” at his stable of parks. He’s ordered his team not to even think about it.

Iger, speaking at a USC Marshall and Annenberg event in Santa Monica on Thursday, instead talked up the possibility of launching high-tech augmented reality attractions. Those will still probably involve headgear, but the devices will blend the real and digital worlds.

Iger noted he spends each Tuesday afternoon at a Disney engineering lab sporting a head-worn device that enables him to hold a light-saber and duel with a stormtrooper.

He could be referring to a partnership with augmented reality device maker Magic Leap. Iger expressed hope the gadget would get lighter and more comfortable someday.

He didn’t shed more details. But it’s possible that game would contrast with virtual reality rides at other theme parks because people would be on a large set and moving around other people, as opposed to standing in place and only seeing computer projections. Disneyland currently offers a popular Jedi Training Academy in Tomorrowland, with live characters who pretend to fight light-saber-wielding children visiting the park.

“What we create is an experience that is real,” Iger said. “When you walk into Cars Land, you feel you’re in Radiator Springs because of what we’ve built — not only the attention to the detail, but the scale.”

Iger described how Disney spent considerable time and money ensuring robots cast as "Avatar” characters would have vibrant facial expressions at an attraction opening in May at its Orlando theme park,

This “will have expressions you will not believe in terms of how Na’vi-like they are,” he said, referring to the human-like alien race in the film franchise.

Theme park experts had already speculated that virtual reality headsets would be unlikely at Disneyland. “Theme park purists don’t like” them, Martin Lewison, a business management professor at Farmingdale State College, said last year. “They’d much rather go on a $250-million ride at Disneyland than throw a mask strapped to a Samsung smartphone over my eyes.”

Iger also shed some insight into the upcoming “Star Wars” attraction at Disney parks in Anaheim and Orlando. One ride is expected to let visitors joyride in the cockpit of Han Solo's spaceship, Millennium Falcon.

"It's pretty good, real good," Iger said of test rides he's done in a simulator.

paresh.dave@latimes.com / PGP

Twitter: @peard33

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