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Tim Disney gets dose of reality

Tim Disney and members of Shamrock Holdings have snapped up controlling interest in Virtual World Entertainment Inc., a leading virtual reality entertainment company.

The investment, reportedly between $ 10 million and $ 15 million, comes just a day after news that VPL Research Inc., another top purveyor of computer-generated environments, has hit the skids.

Disney, the son of Roy Disney Jr., got the bug for the fledgling business six months ago during talks with Charles Fink, a vice president at Walt Disney Pictures.

The pair then recruited Andrew Messing, director of corporate investments at Roy Disney’s Shamrock Holdings, to make the acquisition.

Tim Disney, 31, is now chairman of Chicago-based VWE, with Messing as chief financial officer. Fink is aboard as executive VP for entertainment.

“This is a good bridge between the theme park business and virtual reality,” said Michael Lewis, a senior VP at entertainment investment bankers InterMedia Inc., which has taken stakes in technology-based firms. “This makes for a very smart investment. Otherwise, you’d really have to have a long-term view. ”

The trio isn’t wasting any time capitalizing on VWE’s popularity.

The company’s arcade in Chicago featuring BattleTech, a computer-generated game, opened in July 1990 and sold more than 300,000 tickets at $ 7 a pop.

Disney and Messing envision 20 such centers in the United States in the next three years, at around 5,500 square feet each, featuring the game as well as merchandising and concession stands.

A 10-year licensing deal in Japan was slated to roll out 17 sites in three years. But the success of a center in Yokohama, where 30,000 tickets were sold in the first month, has accelerated that game plan to 15 sites in Tokyo this year alone.

Messing reportedly is in talks with studios about a film based on BattleTech.

Unfortunately, VPL Research may not be able to cash in on this sudden burst of interest in virtual reality. A key investor, France’s Thomson CSF SA, just took control of VPL’s patents since the company defaulted on a $ 1 million loan.

Moreover, the senior executives, including founder Jaron Lanier, have been fired and the new CEO, Jean-Jacques Grimaud, is sifting through the wreckage.

The Foster City-based company had been working with MCA Inc. on a joint venture to develop a theater experience. Grimaud was uncertain of its status and calls to MCA, a unit of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., weren’t returned.

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