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How Nokia is reinventing itself with a $60,000 virtual reality camera

Last July Nokia revealed Ozo, a high-end virtual reality camera designed to capture video and audio in full, 360-degree glory. It’s the kind of integrated solution that the VR market has been largely lacking; while artists are regularly creating live-action VR content, most of it is coming from custom rigs or cobbled-together solutions. Nothing has stood out as the kind of premium gear that is regularly used to shoot film and television.

Tonight at an event in downtown Los Angeles, Nokia revealed just how much that kind of integrated, professional solution will cost, and it’s not cheap: Ozo is priced at $60,000, putting it well out of reach for the hobbyist. But for Nokia, which is faced with reinventing itself after undergoing cataclysmic upheaval in the past few years, it’s the opportunity to take a leadership position in a nascent industry, much like it did with phones decades ago.

Nokia Technologies president Ramzi Haidamus

"When I joined in September of 2014, I was tasked with coming up with a new strategy for Nokia Technologies," Ramzi Haidamus, president of Nokia Technologies tells me. After looking through the experiments the Nokia team had been working on, it was an early prototype of Ozo — first started in 2013 — that caught his eye. "It was a very early prototype; a lab rat. But the video 3D accuracy, and the audio accuracy were phenomenal, even at that stage. And I knew we had a winner, because if you were to think of the market that’s being disrupted, introducing a brand new medium, we were catching it at the right time."

Camera companies like Arri and RED are Nokia's new competitors

Haidamus’ instincts on timing can’t be understated. Ozo will begin shipping in the first quarter of 2016, just as consumers will find themselves with an overabundance of VR viewing options — from simple solutions like Google Cardboard and Gear VR, all the way up to the imminent Playstation VR and Oculus Rift. It’s undoubtedly going to result in a massive uptick in content creation, and Nokia is happy to support every platform or device out there. "There are parts of this market that we’d like to own," Haidamus says. "The content creation piece, and format, of course. And then we’re going to partner everywhere else." It’s a unique take — executives cite camera companies like Arri and RED as points of comparison — carving out a niche that nobody has really bothered to lay claim to yet.

In that regard, the key feature that sets Ozo apart for filmmakers is the inclusion of live monitoring. On film and TV sets, that’s a baseline requirement: directors and cinematographers can see what they’re capturing on a monitor while on set. But for VR, it’s another matter: the computing power needed to stitch imagery together has traditionally meant VR creators have to wait long after they finish shooting to see what they actually captured. Ozo sidesteps that with what Nokia calls "dynamic rendering," allowing filmmakers to don VR goggles and look around the 360-degree field of view captured by Ozo’s eight lenses and microphones in real time.

It sounds like a small detail, but it’s remarkable in action. I tested the feature while the camera was on display, and found the crossfading between the different lenses smooth and natural. It’s not perfect — proper post-production is required for a truly seamless experience — but as a working solution, it has the potential to vastly change the way people direct and stage VR.

Ozo is just part of a much larger VR camera plan

But narrative isn’t the only use for the camera. This kind of turnkey solution seems ideal for documentarians and journalists — Haidamus tells me they’re talking to National Geographic, and one of the early Ozo demos comes courtesy of NASA — and has tremendous potential in educational and industrial markets. With its streamlined workflow and adorable look (it somehow screams "Nokia design" even though it’s basically just a 9.3-pound sphere), Ozo seems like it could be the most accessible option out there for someone looking to seriously tackle VR storytelling — if it wasn’t for that oh-so-professional price point. But talking to Haidamus, it’s clear Ozo is just part of a much larger VR camera plan Nokia is eyeing.

"This team is eager to get back into the game."

"We’re going to make Ozo available for rent at rental houses, to make it accessible, and of course we need to start thinking about how can we make it more accessible to prosumers," he says. "A prosumer [version] would have to be a fraction of this cost, and that has to be something we start thinking about immediately from a product line perspective. This is going to be the top of the pyramid in terms of quality. There’s going to be something where you might not need every single bell and whistle. Something you can just take as it is, stick it somewhere, press record, and it goes. And that’s something that we are thinking about."

It may all seem rather ambitious for what’s essentially a very, very expensive video camera, but it’s clear Nokia thinks it’s found a niche that it is uniquely suited to capitalize upon — and write a new chapter for the company in the process. "You have to remember that this team is eager to get back into the game," Haidamus stresses. "This is the first product from Nokia Technologies since the phone days, and they just really wanted to outdo themselves."