Nokia was best known as a maker of affordable cellphones until it sold its mobile business to Microsoft MSFT -1.79% in 2014. Now the Finnish firm is making a hardware comeback—with a $60,000 virtual-reality camera that shoots video few people can watch today.
The camera is the brainchild of Ramzi Haidamus, a Dolby Laboratories DLB -0.62%veteran whom Nokia NOK +0.33% hired to be president of its technology division in July 2014, just after it got out of the cellphone business.
Haidamus said Nokia asked him to figure out what to do with its consumer-hardware division, so he took a tour of the company’s labs. He said the first thing that caught his attention was an early prototype of a virtual-reality camera.
“It was very ugly,” Haidamus said Thursday, in an interview at the European launch of the camera in London. “All you saw was eight lenses in the air and a bunch of wires. It looked like a spider with eight eyes.”
A year and a half later, the product became the Nokia OZO, a sleek, gray, cantaloupe-size sphere with eight lenses inside it.
To film virtual-reality video nowadays, a filmmaker typically has to put, say, seven GoPro GPRO -0.35% cameras on a rig, while pointing the lenses in different directions. Nokia says the OZO is the first high-end virtual-reality camera that is ready to go out of the box, with all the cameras and microphones contained within one device.
Haidamus said that at $60,000, the OZO was meant to be sold or rented to professional filmmakers, though he said Nokia planned to later introduce cheaper versions of the camera for hobbyists.
It’s hard to figure out whether anyone would buy or rent the OZO, or whether anyone would watch anything shot on it. To watch a virtual-reality video today, a person would need something like Google Cardboard, which is a cardboard box that lets people view virtual-reality videos on a smartphone, or a more expensive electronic headset.
Gartner analyst Brian Blau said that he expected more than one million virtual-reality and augmented-reality headsets to be sold in 2016, but he doesn’t expect quick, widespread adoption. “There’s a possibility that it could grow quickly, but that could be five or 10 years before it will be ubiquitous,” Blau said.
At the London event, I watched what Nokia said was a live broadcast of an outdoor concert that Nokia set up on a nearby rooftop. The quality was pretty good, and I was mesmerized by an airplane flying overhead. But there was one major downside: When I turned my head to look at the keyboardist, the keyboardist would jump two steps to the right. It was obvious that I had switched between shots created with different lenses, and the transition wasn’t smooth.
Haidamus said Nokia’s software was still learning how to seamlessly stitch together video from different lenses for live broadcasts, and that he expected Nokia to solve that problem by the end of the year, via a software update.
Haidamus declined to reveal how many OZO cameras had been sold since it was introduced in North America last year, saying only that he was happy with the figure. He said Nokia was OK with being an early entry into the virtual-reality camera market, saying it was better than being late.
Either way, the launch of the OZO is a major bet for Nokia, which hopes its hardware division will complement its main business of selling telecommunications equipment.
“This is our first Nokia product since the phone,” Haidamus said. “We are reinventing ourselves with the product.”