Intel, Nokia Aim for 3-D in Smartphones

Pair pushing technologies for their MeeGo operating system, not necessarily Intel's Atom

Photo: Intel

24 August 2010—Intel and Nokia will bring interactive 3-D environments to mobile phones through a collaboration with the University of Oulu in Finland, the companies said Monday. "3-D and virtual worlds really have the potential to revolutionize mobile and Internet users’ experiences," says Mika Setälä, Nokia’s director of industry alliances. "Consumers definitely will feel more involved and more engaged when they’re using these technologies."

The recent popularity of 3-D movies, such as Avatar, the growth in broadband capable of handling the high data rates necessary, and increased use of location-based applications for cellphones promise a lot of potential for mobile apps that let users collaborate in virtual environments, says Heikki Huomo, director of the Center for Internet Excellence at the University of Oulu, where about two dozen researchers in the joint project will be based. He envisions multiuser 3-D games, virtual business meetings, or professional training programs based on the technology. One near-term application might be a home control system that would allow a user to adjust home heating and lighting through a 3-D display on the phone. Huomo says 3-D could provide a new type of user interface analogous to the switch from typing commands to clicking icons on PCs.

The researchers will build on MeeGo, a Linux-based open-source operating system jointly developed by Intel and Nokia. The operating system is designed to work not only on smartphones but on other devices, such as netbooks and tablet computers, with a variety of hardware architectures. In June, at the Computex trade show, in Taipei, Intel discussed future tablet computers running MeeGo on its Atom processor. Martin Curley, director of Intel Labs Europe, says the new collaboration is not specifically aimed at pushing Atom into smartphones, but "that’s a key strategic objective that Intel has."

The collaboration is not an attempt to sell specific hardware, Curley says, though he adds that increased use of mobile broadband will undoubtedly drive up demand for servers. Rather, he points to a statement by Intel president Paul Otellini regarding Intel’s purchase last week of antivirus software maker McAfee. The aim, Otellini said, is to transform Intel from a chip company into a computer company. "We see this very much as an adjacent business," Curley says.

The 3-D experience could be similar to Second Life , which provides a 3-D environment on a two-dimensional display, Huomo says. Or it could rely on some sort of autostereoscopic system, which sends a different image to each eye, creating a 3-D scene. Such systems have a very narrow viewing angle, which makes them impractical for large-screen televisions but could work well with the smaller screens on mobile phones, he says. The software could be built on the realXtend virtual reality platform developed by Nokia and the development company Oulu Innovation.

Though the announcement made a passing reference to a phone capable of projecting a 3-D hologram of a caller, Huomo says the lab is not aiming for such a specific killer app with the technology it’s developing. "Very likely it will be implemented in products in small steps over a long period of time," he says.

Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for market research firm In-Stat, says the Intel-Nokia collaboration seems to be an effort on the part of both companies to position themselves in an increasingly crowded market. Intel is still trying to break into the handset market with its Atom chips, he says. As for Nokia, "they need to be out there in front showing that they're doing something, because they're losing [market] share, particularly in the smartphone segment."

But he says there will be a lot of competition. "Everyone’s working on new applications, working on 3-D," he says.

About the Author

Neil Savage writes about optoelectronics and other technology in Lowell, Mass. Earlier in August 2010, he reported on Intel’s progress in building optical interconnect systems.

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