A chat about Nokia Research with Henry Tirri

The kind folks at Nokia arranged for a quiet chat with a few of the folks behind the Nokia Research Center. In addition to specific product development issues, a lot of interesting information was shared about Nokia’s research efforts in general.  For example, Nokia is one of the few big players left with a pure research department, not a combined research and development arm. The researchers work closely with the various Nokia operating units, and an advanced engineering team is responsible for grooming mature research projects into products, with the help of the operating units. Henry Tirri, current head of Nokia Research Center, takes the position that Nokia Research’s job is to provide choices for the operating units.

Also of note is the fact that Nokia considers its research group to be a unified, global entity, as opposed to insulated regional research teams. Each research office is located near a major university, which Nokia leverages well.  Nokia donates — or helps provide — research platforms upon which students can innovate.

One of the more interesting products to come from Nokia Research is “Point and Find,” highlighted in the video above, which combines location based knowledge with pattern recognition to give users instant access to a wealth of information. The obvious examples are things like pointing your phone at a building to get an on-screen display of info about that building.  Your phone knows you’re in Barcelona, Spain, so automatically filters the pattern recognition process by elements within that location. It’s impressive that the pattern recognition occurs in the phone in real time: you don’t need to snap a photo, you merely get the item in the phone’s camera frame. Currently Point and Find is being used with closed, high-quality datasets — geography, movie posters, and the like — but Henry showed obvious excitement when suggesting that the data could be user-augmented (he seemed to stop short of user-generated info).

The next generation of Point and Find is being dubbed “Mixed Reality,” wherein the phone can overlay displays on the items being displayed on screen.  Henry suggested waving the phone across a view of San Francisco to see a real-time overlay of what the city blocks looked like before the earthquake. Look at the phone and see the historical snapshot, look past the phone at reality.

I asked Henry about any intentions they might have to explore peer to peer or ad-hoc networking, since so many of the services being advertised today are clearly client-server. Henry admitted that it’s a hard problem to tackle, not only technically but also socially: privacy issues abound, and people have differing demarcation points between personal and public information. One of the really unique ideas for a true peer-to-peer social application that Henry suggested would be to track employee interactions within a company, so that you can see how functional working groups and individuals interact, which might be much more revealing than an org chart hierarchy might otherwise suggest.

Henry was very clearly passionate about his job. He’s a computer scientist by training, and has been a faculty member at a number of universities. His looks to be a fun job, described by one of the bloggers here as being scoffed at by product units in the early stages of development (“Who wants THAT?!”) to being seen as a visionary as products hit the market.