Smartphones have barely entered the 3D age, but Nokia and Intel are already racing ahead to do research on enabling 3D virtual worlds on mobile computing platforms.

The two companies are announcing today a research center (pictured below) at the University of Oulu in Oulu, Finland, that will work on the technology required to make the mobile 3D virtual world possible.

Heikki Huomo, director of the university’s center for internet excellence, said in a press call that the research center will hire two dozen researchers to work for at least three years on the problem. The work starts now and will focus on creating compelling experiences on mobile phones for users. Intel and Nokia are working together already on a project dubbed MeeGo, a mobile operating system.

“3D has the potential to revolutionize mobile and internet user experiences,” Huomo said.

We’ve heard that pitch before from companies such as IBM, which were big believers in Second Life’s 3D virtual world. A few years ago, everyone thought that virtual worlds would become pervasive and that 3D user interfaces would take off. Martin Curley, director of Intel Labs Europe, said that virtual worlds saw a big hype cycle, crashed due to inflated expectations, and are now making a comeback. He believes the same could happen over time with mobile 3D worlds.

Intel and Nokia believe that the technology will go well with their MeeGo operating system, which is targeted at a wide range of mobile devices. Intel hopes to take cues from the research to develop its next generation of microprocessors. The new lab will partner with other Intel labs in Germany, France and Ireland.