Nokia’s Ozo VR Camera Marks a Rebirth for the Phone Giant
Vesa Rantanen is staring straight into my eyes. He heads up research and development at Nokia Technologies, and while holding my gaze, he’s telling me the story of how his team ended up in the VR business. But I’m having a hard time paying attention. While he’s talking to me, others are gathering around. They’re weirdly looking at me. I can hear them whispering on my left, so I turn to take a quick peek. When I do, I see myself in the distance, wearing a Gear VR. I wave, and the me I’m looking at waves at the same time.
In fact, Rantanen isn’t staring into my eyes at all. He’s looking into the lens array on the Ozo, Nokia’s spherical virtual reality camera. Microphones on the Ozo are picking up his speech, and the whispers of those around him. Through my VR headset and headphones, I can see and hear whatever the Ozo is seeing an hearing nearly as effectively as if it were my own eyes and ears.
It’s not the first time I’ve tried a VR a headset, but it’s the first time I’ve ever experienced something like this. Instead of diving into 3D computer-generated simulation of a pre-prepared world, Nokia’s next-gen spherical camera is actually teleporting me across the room in real time. But that distance of just a few feet could easily be hundreds of miles. That possibility in particular speaks to Nokia’s plan.
Designed and built in Finland, Nokia’s VR camera is made of aluminum, is big about the size of a human head, and weighs less than 10 pounds. The device, which sort of resembles a puffer fish, hosts eight 2K by 2K resolution cameras, each spaced out so the distance between lenses is the same as the distance between two human eyes. This helps the Ozo recreate a realistic view of all perspectives as you move your head around. Images are processed in pairs to create the best possible stereoscopic effect. There are microphones all over it too, Rantanen says. “Since audio is at least half of the virtual reality experience, we’ve built eight microphones into OZO for 3D audio capture,” he tells me. The 195 degree field of view per lens is enough to capture the full surroundings, even behind the “fin” at the back of the head where removable SSD cartridge and battery pack are stored. A large opening at the top of the device, and another one beneath it, were designed to function as a natural air cooling system, eliminating the need for a fan and, along with it, any worry about fan noise altering the audio.
The Ozo is set to be unveiled on November 30 in Los Angeles, and expected to cost around $50,000. That’s about three times the price tag of the GoPro Odyssey. However, while the GoPro’s footage must still be assembled in laborious post-production processes, the Ozo can generate a full 360-degree stereoscopic video in real time. Thanks to HD-SDI connections on the body, the camera can stream 1.5 Gbps of compressed RAW footage to store data from the streams from the eight lens, broadcast full 360-degree panoramic video, and also stream a low-res feed for monitoring. The camera is Wi-Fi enabled, too, allowing filmmakers to control the system remotely in real time while shooting.
Nokia’s bold move into virtual reality is a clear statement that the Finns are still alive, and that they’re more interested in the projected $150 billion dollar VR industry than they are in the mobile handset industry.
And yet, there’s a fil rouge between Nokia’s old business and the new one. In fact, when I met the Ozo team earlier this month at Slush, Finland’s biggest startup event, it was clear to me that the company’s original “Connecting People” slogan, which served Nokia well when it dominated mobile phone sales, has just been reinterpreted for the VR era.
Getting to observe and hear what the camera sees and hears in real time with no discernible lag is a huge step forward—and so realistic that I foolishly found myself trying to interact with my surroundings multiple times during the demo. When it comes to playback, too, there’s no need to download and assemble multiple files. Ozo’s software dynamically stitches all the feeds into a nearly seamless sphere. (There’s a very small jump perceptible when your field of view is transitioning between stereo pairs). If needed, Nokia’s editing system comes with the option to traditionally render the footage, and the resulting videos will be compatible with existing VR viewers such as HTC Vive and the Oculus-partnered Samsung Gear VR. Unfortunately, even the low-res preview can’t be streamed wirelessly, so you still need to be wired up with a cable. This reduces your ability to roam around—but in any case, your movements won’t interact with the narrative, so you quickly understand that your only job is stand still and look around. But think of those occasions where an immersive 360-degree view would be ideal, like a trackside experience during a race, or a concert viewed from the stage. You could get front-row seats to anything and never leave the sofa.
When Microsoft closed its Nokia acquisition, roughly 18 months ago, the 200-person Nokia Tecnologies division was created in Helsinki, Finland. Charged with exploring new ways for humans to interact with technology, a bunch of engineers came up with the idea of a virtual reality camera and got the funds to develop some concepts further. Of course, OZO isn’t the first out-of-the-box solution for 360 videos, but unlike other options such as Ricoh’s Theta S, the 360fly Action Camera and Kodak’s spherical-shooting PIXPRO SP360-4K action cam it’s the only one that can add some pretty good stereoscopic 3-D effects to the footage. But the Ozo is definitely not a camera intended for consumers. Instead, it’s built for professional content creators and broadcasters. And eventually consumers, who’ll be on the other end of the streaming. (The company showed the camera off to the Hollywood production community this summer.)
Nokia considers virtual reality the best business to exploit its deep expertise in optics, sensors and audio, and wants to use it to revolutionize media and entertainment. That’s what Ozo is to Nokia: a category changer. For starters, it will allow people to be in different places, revisit the past looking around in a different directions, and experience a story in different ways. Anyone working in the field will tell you that VR is going to be about a lot more than just games. The New York Times‘ recent experiment with Cardboard is pointing in that exact direction too. These advancements, both the big ones and the small ones, are each bringing us one step closer to the ultimate empathy machine.