Nokia plots device comeback in VR, but will have to duke it out with Facebook

The Nokia as we traditionally know it is no more, and the reborn company of today is mainly focused on network infrastructure. However, it still has its Technologies arm for R&D and licensing, and this will give it a continuing influence over the device industry, though patents and also its own new products.

It is pinning a core part of its future business strategy on emerging virtual reality (VR) technologies. In the run-up to this week’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) event, Nokia has announced the launch of OZO Reality – an updated set of technologies for supporting the delivery, creation and end user experience of VR content.

Nokia is hoping to propel uptake of its OZO camera, a $40,000 piece of kit with eight sensors and eight microphones, by bundling in its updated software packages to provide producers with a tempting all-round tool set. The specs and partners look impressive, but perhaps OZO’s only serious challenger in the space at present is Facebook, which just unveiled the second generation of its Surround 360 camera last week at the F8 developer conference.

The creation side of the update includes OZO+, an upgraded version of Nokia’s VR camera solution, as well as the OZO Live 3D 360 stream and audio system. OZO Creator has also been given a revamp for VR image processing techniques and stereoscopic software, which now includes something Nokia calls mixed reality enablement – meaning the integration of features such as advertising and game engine elements.

Delivery is a thorn in the side of the VR industry, so Nokia’s OZO Deliver software component claims to enable partners of the OZO Reality platform to ingest and manage immersive experiences – delivered at lower bandwidth to broader audiences.

A key feature is Nokia’s OZO Player SDK, which is being integrated by a number of partners to provide a single interface for all major VR and 360 video platforms and apps – which it says now includes depth rendering with occlusion to provide real time integration of the aforementioned mixed reality elements.

Perhaps more significant and exciting from our point of view is the technology vendors which have jumped into bed with Nokia for its OZO VR ventures as part of this week’s announcement; vendors with tried and tested expertise in specific steps of the OTT content delivery chain which bodes well for shaping the VR experiences of the future.
Those vendors are Akamai, AWS Elemental, Harmonic, NeuLion, Youku, 3stage Design, Accedo, Haivision, Ideal Systems, Kaltura, LiveLike, Nibiru, Primestream, Ratio, Qello, and China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC).

Many of these are brand new names to collaborate with Nokia in VR, though Akamai and Elemental have been on board since OZO debuted in January 2016, and NeuLion first announced a partnership with Nokia and its OZO camera in September last year.

Companies integrating the OZO Player SDK or OZO Reality platform into their existing suites of VR products or services are 3stage Design, Accedo, Ideal Systems, Kaltura, LiveLike, Primestream, Nibiru, and Ratio. More encoding technologies are being provided by Haivision, while Qello is supplying Nokia with a monetization platform, and CICC is planning to produce VR documentaries.

NeuLion’s involvement hints heavily at a collaborative effort to live-stream a major sporting event in VR, but so far all Nokia’s live 360-degree events, including concerts, music festivals, sports and political events, have all been powered by Elemental.

NeuLion is definitely in competition with Elemental and is emphatic that it does not need the Elemental encoding platform. The former has built much of its own technologies to lead the way in live sports, but it has also amassed technologies from DiVX, for its HEVC SDK, and Saffron Digital’s SVoD software and electronic sell-through services.

Now Harmonic has thrown its encoding capabilities into the hat too. Harmonic is probably in the lead on encoding VR experiences courtesy of some unique, university-derived tiling encoders, which only encode the central screen of a nine-screen potential view in full resolution.

A collaborative drive in developing VR technologies will be key to getting VR viewing formats into the mainstream and living up to the hype of market forecasts.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s new Surround 360 camera, for its Oculus Rift headsets, comes in two models, the x6 with six cameras and the more heavy duty x24 with 24 cameras – both capturing footage in 8K with six degrees of freedom (6DOF). 6DOF is a specialist method used by Hollywood special effects team, but Facebook and other VR firms are working on lowering the costs of this exclusive technology to broaden availability.

Facebook claims the Surround 360 is not only the most advanced on the market today, but that its hardware and software are easier to use. Facebook has been keeping quiet about its VR partnership deals so far, as its developments go on behind closed doors at its Area 404, but it recently teamed up with the South Korean government to cooperate in funding VR and AR start-ups in the country.

Paul Melin, VP of digital media at Nokia Technologies, commented on the announcement: “We are developing innovations that work together to empower storytellers, enable audiences to participate in content anywhere on any platform, and deliver on the promise of transformative experiences that help the human family feel more together. As VR and AR fast approach a tipping point that will lead to explosive growth, OZO products and technologies are well-positioned to be key drivers for the future of an industry that could top $100bn in less than a decade.”

The $100bn figure comes from a revenue forecast by Digi-Capital and IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide.