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Meego goes 3D

Just what are Nokia and Intel playing at?

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Yesterday Nokia and Intel announced that the future of mobile interfaces is 3D, and that everyone else will soon be following their Meego platform into the third dimension.

3D is certainly a bandwagon, and Nokia likes hopping on board bandwagons whenever it spots one. This time it's dragging Intel along for the ride, but rather than depending on 3D being successful it seems more likely that the companies are placing a small bet against long odds, when there isn't very much to lose.

We have in the past accused Nokia of being too obsessed with users' requests - of lacking vision and creating handsets which are evolutionary rather than revolutionary - so it would be hypocritical of us to then lambast the company for enthusiastically endorsing a technology that nobody has asked for. Nokia claims to be ahead of the curve, and that by hitching Meego to 3D interfaces it can catapult the platform ahead of the competition.

This would be great if the companies were blazing a trail into the unknown, but unfortunately they are instead walking a well-trodden path that so far only leads in dead ends and disappointment.

Even Nokia and Intel aren't expecting phone users to don spectacles. The technology will be about presenting 3D interfaces on 2D screens - hence the comparison to Second Life. The fact that phone screens are rarely shared means that some form of parallax 3D (as used on Nintendo's next handheld console) might be possible, but that's not what the new research centre will be focusing on.

3D interfaces are nothing new on computers or mobile phones. VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) was supposed to create a 3D version of the internet, but besides a very cool model of London Bridge the technology stalled as there remains little point in adding a third dimension:

3D screen shot provided by Nokia

This is just the kind of thing VRML was good at in 1995

3D environments also exist on mobile phones, despite adding very little value. That's partly because operators put enormous pressure on manufacturers for 3D acceleration in phones in the rather naive belief that it would drive up the sales of Java games. Once the acceleration was there manufacturers felt obliged to use it.

Desktop computers have had 3D acceleration for decades and struggled to find a reason to use 3D interfacing. Your correspondent spent a happy few months pushing windows into the distance and pulling them forward again, with a replacement shell for Windows, but to very little real advantage beyond the joy of novelty.

3D Desktop

3DNA provides 3D desktops for those who value aesthetics more than productivity

So why are Intel and Nokia so resolutely fixated on getting 3D into Meego?

Partly it's the hype cycle that Nokia can't resist and Intel wants to believe. During the announcement we were told that 3D was past the "trough of disillusionment" and that users would start to demand it, though we can't help wondering whether 3D has had a few troughs in it's time and very few peaks.

We were also told by Heikki Huomo that "gaming is a collaborative environment", which is the same line that the Second Life crowd spout when they're not dodging flying penises. The companies also told the assembled media that the "consumer [is] moving to the world of the prosumer" and that 3D will make these new prosumers "more involved and more engaged", all of which sounds like the worst kind of hyperbole to us.

So why, if it's obviously such bunk, are Intel and Nokia investing in the idea so heavily? Basically, they aren't. The investment, announced yesterday, involves employing 24 people for three years - hardly betting either company's profits on the idea.

The announcement alone got marvelous publicity for Nokia, Intel and Meego. Those 24 developers will no doubt have fun creating some really cool demonstrations that will keep the Meego platform in the public eye for a few years, and if by some remarkable shift in attitude 3D does become desirable then the companies look like they knew all along.

Basically Intel and Nokia are gambling on a long shot, but they aren't gambling more than they can afford. At the very worst they end up with some really cool demonstrations of what Meego can do, which sounds like rather a good idea. ®

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