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  • 11.30.15

Can Nokia’s $60,000 Professional Camera Shoots Make VR More Real?

The Ozo was built to capture realistic sound in 360 degrees.

Virtual reality has a reality problem–as in, it doesn’t always feel that real.

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Until now, many camera systems used to produce VR have created 360-degree video by stringing together a number of individual cameras. Now Nokia has created a purpose-built system that captures not only 360 degrees of video, but also sound. The Finnish company–once a global giant dominating the cell phone market, but more recently an afterthought in that business–has built the Ozo, a brand-new high-end, professional-quality camera it hopes will become the standard for shooting VR in the film, sports, news, and music businesses, among others.

The $60,000 Ozo is being unveiled this evening at a glitzy press event in Los Angeles complete with a live VR broadcast of a rock show being played on the rooftop of the famous Capitol Records building in Hollywood.

For VR to succeed, it’s essential that those aforementioned industries have access to good tools for creating top-notch content. With the release earlier this month of Samsung’s Gear VR, and the launch over the next half-year of higher-end systems like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR, we’re on the precipice of the consumer VR era, and users will demand content that justifies their purchase of VR hardware.

A PiperJaffray report estimates that the market for VR content will be worth $5.4 billion by 2025, while a study from Digi-Capital suggests that the entire VR industry will be a $30 billion annual business by 2020. PiperJaffray says that number will be $62 billion by 2025.

Nokia is aiming for the Ozo to be an essential tool in the creation of those billions of dollars in content by combining the ability to record both video and sound in 360 degrees. That’s something Nokia Technologies president Ramzi Haidamus says will make the Ozo a “category-definer,” and a “game-changing” device that “enables a deeper human connection and empathy between storyteller and the person seeing the experience.”

Sound is at least 50% of that dynamic. “What we’ve been saying,” Haidamus says, “is that the only way for me to get you to look behind you, or to the left of you or the right of you” in VR is with directional sound.

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Imagine watching a caper film in VR. You’re looking at a dark street, a la every noir movie Hollywood ever made. Suddenly a murder takes place behind you. In a traditional film, the camera would have to turn in that direction. In VR, it’s the viewer that has to turn, and to Nokia, it should be the sound of the gunshot that gets you to swivel your head. “The only way to cue you, to draw your attention,” is with very accurate sound capture technology.”

Not everyone thinks that’s the only way. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, for example, told Fast Company in September that filmmakers may have to use a form of predictive analysis to figure out how to compel viewers to turn their heads toward action in a 360-degree VR experience. But it’s clear that directional sound could very much help.

The Ozo weighs eight pounds and is about the size of a melon, or a human head. That makes it portable, allowing filmmakers, Nokia believes, to take the camera just about anywhere. That includes mounting it on large drones, enabling high-quality aerial VR footage.

Haidamus extolls the camera’s ability to shoot and broadcast live VR footage thanks to the device’s onboard processing, as well as real-time stitching of images from its many lenses. That makes the Ozo ideal for, say, broadcasting live sports or news events, he says.

Already, the NBA has experimented with live VR broadcasts of basketball games. Last month, the season opener of the world-champion Golden State Warriors was broadcast in VR using technology from Laguna Beach, California-based NextVR, which also makes its own end-to-end professional-quality virtual reality camera system.

Nokia thinks its approach is superior to any other device on the market, given the addition of surround sound capture, among other things.

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The truth is that there are as of yet no standards for capturing VR content. A number of companies, from Google to GoPro to Jaunt, have built dedicated VR cameras, and there are numerous jerry-rigged devices that allow shooting VR in varying degrees of quality.

For its part, Nokia wants to encourage the creation of as much VR content as possible, so it is planning to rent the Ozo to qualified filmmakers, Haidamus says. It also hopes to reduce the cost of the Ozo over time, as well as release prosumer versions of the camera.

Nokia will open an innovation center in Silicon Valley next year and plans on inviting a wide range of people, from a variety of industries, to come and help figure out the art form and “grow the VR ecosystem,” Haidamus says.

Jaunt, which recently closed a $65 million round of funding led by Disney, has also created a VR production studio, in Santa Monica, California, and is bringing in all kinds of content creators in a bid to become the go-to place for creating, processing, and distributing VR content. But while Jaunt built its own high-end VR camera system, the Neo, it also plans on using the Ozo, in large part because Nokia’s camera is compatible with Jaunt’s distribution system.

“It’s always been our plan to support the right tools in order to create the right piece of content,” says Jaunt Studios head Cliff Plumer, “and we built our camera to support a lot of what we do. But just as with any filmmaking, you use a lot of different cameras and tools in order to achieve creatively what you want to do.”
Plumer says Jaunt has been working with Nokia since earlier this year, when the company was first developing the Ozo. He called the camera “complementary to what we’re doing…benefitting us and our content creation, and benefitting Nokia and their clientele to have a complete solution, from capture to postproduction.”

He also says that while there are other ways to capture sound in 360 degrees, Nokia’s integration of sound capture into the Ozo “is definitely a breakthrough.”

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In the end, Nokia believes that the Ozo will not only help people create great VR content, but will also inspire them to move the medium forward.

“Every time you show Ozo to someone,” says Haidamus, “or show them what we have created [with it], they come up with five new ideas of their own. I’ve never seen so many people be so creative….That’s what tells me we’re at the edge of something new, at the edge of a huge disruption.”

Related: Virtual Reality’s First Person Shooter Problem

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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