Nokia, Intel target 3D and virtual reality on mobile devices

Intel Corp. , Nokia Corp. and Finland’s University of Oulu announced today that they are developing a joint research center to create software for 3D and virtual reality experiences for use on mobile devices.

The software will be developed by about 24 engineers in Oulu using the open-source MeeGo operating system, which was launched in February by Intel and Nokia. An early version of the MeeGo mobile phone OS went to developers in late June. The companies said in a conference call that they envisioned 3D and virtual reality software running on a broad range of mobile devices, includingsmartphones and tablets.

The university has a reputation for its work on electronics, photonics and telecommunications. Oulu researchers also work with an open-source virtual reality platform known as realXtend , the officials said.

“3D and virtual worlds have the potential to revolutionize the [mobile] user experience,” said Mika Setala, Nokia’s director of strategic alliances and partnerships.

One of the earliest practical applications for the software will be to develop a virtual control panel for a mobile device to regulate heating and lighting in a real world home, Setala said. “The real world [will be] mimicked for heating and lighting… and power,” he said. No timeline was announced.

Creating social networks within virtual worlds for mobile devices coupled with GPS and other location information “will be a killer app or at least very successful,” said Heikki Huomo, director of the university’s Center for Internet Excellence. “Consumers will feel more involved and engaged with these technologies.”

Martin Curley, director of Intel Labs in Europe, said the focus of the research center will be on building open-source software that complements Intel’s chips. He also didn’t rule out the possibility that the software could give rise to new Nokia devices on future Intel chip architectures.

An avatar watches Youtube in a virtual world created using the RealXtend open-source platform. Nokia, Intel and Finland’s University of Oulu are working on making similar virtual worlds possible via mobile platforms. 

Huomo said the three organizations are involved in a research collaboration, not a joint venture, and explained that the funds invested will support about two-dozen researchers for three years. Intel already has 21 research labs in Europe with 900 employees.

The research effort does not require building a custom 3D display, because some 3D experiences can be shown in two dimensions, Huomo said. The research group also wants to avoid creating a 3D experience that requires using special glasses, noting that small screens don’t have the same physical requirements as larger displays, such as big-screen TVs and movie theater screens, whose viewers can’t see 3D effects with the naked eye.

Building 3D holographic technology that would project an interactive image hasn’t been ruled out, although Huomo conceded that developing such technology would be a “stretch.” Holograms have for years been a staple of science fiction movies, including the Star Wars series . The Oulu researchers, however, “are trying to go for a truly immersive 3D hologram,” Huomo said.

The research center gives Nokia and Intel an opportunity to “kick-start” the MeeGo operating system, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J.Gold Associates. 3D will be most important in larger screen mobile devices, such as tablets, and less so in smartphones, he said.

Both Intel and Nokia are “playing catch-up” with popular mobile technologies such as 3D, Gold said, even though both companies have been powerhouses for years in their respective markets.

Huomo said the use of 3D and virtual reality in mobile devices could set Nokia and Intel products apart from other mobile devices and applications on the market. “That’s the $1,000 question,” he said. “We are starting the research and will find usage paradigms beyond the current ones.”

“Nobody has a monopoly on innovation,” Curley added. “This [research] will stiffen the competition and raise the game for everybody.”

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