November 6, 2006 1:16 PM PST

Microsoft mapping goes 3D

Microsoft on Monday unveiled a new, downloadable browser application that brings the photorealism and maneuverability of gaming into its online mapping and local search service.

In Virtual Earth 3D, which is part of Microsoft's Live Search, users can "fly" over cities and in between buildings just like they do in virtual-reality environments, like that found in the online 3D world of Second Life. However, in the Microsoft interface there are no avatars, and the buildings, roadways and geographical landmarks depicted are replicas of real urban landscapes rather than versions of a community based on fantasy.

But Virtual Earth 3D does include fixtures that might not necessarily be visible in the real world: "virtual billboards" float above buildings with advertisements on them as part of a pilot advertising program, said Stephen Lawler, general manager of the Virtual Earth group. For instance, Fox has a virtual billboard hovering above the AMC cinema in downtown San Francisco. Other advertisers are Nissan Motor, Zip Realty and John L. Scott realty.

Different advertisers will rotate through the billboard ads, and users will be able to click on them to go to the advertiser's Web site. Eventually, the ads may be targeted to reflect the user's query, Lawler said.

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The virtual billboards bring online map advertising to a whole new level. Currently, other mapping services feature either text ads to the side of the map or ads in pop-up windows or bubbles.

The virtual billboard functionality comes from Massive, an in-game advertising company that, in May, Microsoft said it was acquiring. The Massive technology enables designers to render a graphic on top of any surface in a 3D environment.

Microsoft was able to create the lifelike cities with technology and expertise it acquired with the purchase of Vexcel, a provider of photogrammetry, imagery and remote-sensing technology. Microsoft announced the purchase plans in March.

"We built photorealistic cities with engineering-precise accuracy," Lawler said. "We fly the Vexcel aerial camera over the cities and collect all this imagery and create an engineering production pipeline that is highly automated" instead of creating each building by hand, he said. Automating the process cuts down the cost of building 3D environments to hundreds of thousands of dollars from more than $1 million, he added.

Three-dimensional models are built for 15 U.S. cities, with more to come, he said. The cities are San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle; Boston; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Detroit; Phoenix; Houston; Baltimore; Atlanta; Denver; Dallas; and Fort Worth, Texas.

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Video: Microsoft takes on Google with new Virtual Earth

Users can choose between the two-dimensional views, aerial or birds-eye views, and the three-dimensional interface. They can use the existing map services, such as business listings, white pages, traffic information and driving directions, on any of the interfaces.

Microsoft has been aiming for an edge in mapping innovation as it competes with Google, Yahoo and AOL to attract users and advertisers to its online search services. Microsoft unveiled its unique 45-degree bird's-eye view feature late last year.

Virtual Earth 3D sets itself apart from the competition because users don't have to download it to their hard drive, can run it in the browser and still enjoy the graphical richness it offers, said Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence. In addition, Microsoft could eventually put video in the virtual billboard ads, he said.

"It makes this virtual city environment capable of all kinds of advertising, Sterling said. "It signals a larger trend of the Internet becoming more of a visually immersive environment. This takes mapping to the next level."

Microsoft also is opening up the application programming interface for Virtual Earth 3D to allow developers to build the search features into their own applications and Web sites.

See more CNET content tagged:
billboard, advertiser, city, building, 3D

21 comments

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Nice try
It exactly like Google Earth, except without the smoothness and quickness of Google Earth. And it's really buggy. Leaving graphical trails all over the screen. The landscapes don't load half the time either leaving me with a blurry low res view. The only thing I like are the textured 3d buildings when you're at street level.
Posted by ss_Whiplash (143 comments )
Reply Link Flag
3D cities
How many cities has Google put into 3D? Last I checked, they were still using the Keyhole software they bought to catch up to this and cities were simply flat photographs mapped onto whever the elevation was compared to sea level.

You're saying Keyhole now has the same 3D rendered urban environments as Live Local? Guess it's been to long since I've used Keyhole.
Posted by KTLA_knew (385 comments )
Link Flag
were you wearing 3D glasses!!!
the last time I checked Google their maps were in 2D unless you had some special 3D glasses you were wearing!!!
Posted by FutureGuy (742 comments )
Link Flag
try changing the settings
If you put the quality on the highest possible it works fine. Its quick, smooth and looks great on my system.
Posted by a85 (104 comments )
Link Flag
Plugin/IE
To say the product is browser based, and they say it only runs in EI and requires a plugin is a contradiction. IE with a required plugin is the same as installing something like Google Earth as it requires the Windows OS to do all the work. Anyway, competition, either good or bad, is always good for us consumers.
Posted by xcgeek (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Only for windows? Google Wins......
Google Earth supports Windows Mac and Linux.

Microsoft supports their OS and their browser.

As far as this user is concerned, Microsoft don't as they don't offer me any services.

Go Google Earth!
Posted by Linuxluver (3 comments )
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Yeah
your right...MS can only reach 90% of all computers.
Posted by Lindy01 (443 comments )
Link Flag
too bad, 96% of all computers only
thats a shame, I mean, with only 96% compadability, its sure to fail!
***
Posted by zeeboid (92 comments )
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too bad, 96% of all computers only
thats a shame, I mean, with only 96% compadability, its sure to fail!
***
Posted by zeeboid (92 comments )
Link Flag
Only compadable with 96% of computers
thats a shame, I mean, with only 96% compadability, its sure to fail!

whatev. i've been using LiveLocal for a while now. I made the "switch" from Google. The new 3d version rocks. soon you will be able to use Microsoft's Flight Sim to fly the whole world on your computer. that, is sweet... but again, only 96% of comoputer users will be able to use it.
Posted by zeeboid (92 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Compatible, YES... Used? NO
Not a bad app. It's pretty clunky you must admit. Not exactly ready for prime time. If they can speed it up, make it more cross browser compatible then maybe. I don't see it being a G-EARTH killer ever.
Posted by riceguitar (12 comments )
Link Flag
Depends what you're trying to do
Last year I was project manager at a Fortune 100 where we did two proof-of-concept mashups that married a sample of our internal data to both Google Earth and MS Virtual Earth.

Google Earth made for a much nicer presentation to executives because of the cool zooming feature and flyover street mapping. However, one of the major drawbacks to using GE as a consumer tool is the idea that potential customers need to download a 10+ megabyte client program (and learn how to use it) to access the data we were presenting.

As others have noted, Virtual Earth doesn't have the same "wow factor" and it is sometimes clunky due to bandwidth issues, but it was able to map our data just as accurately. The high-resolution "bird's eye view," where available, was particularly useful in our application. The fact that VE was browser-based also made our application more intuitive to use for "casual" or "consumer" web surfers.

Both applications work well, it just depends what you're trying to do with them. Google Earth seems more like a research tool to me, and Virtual Earth seems like it's geared to advertising (which is the main point of the article, of course).
Posted by Paul Schantz (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
very well said, paul
It really does come down to what you want to do - downloading GE will not allow you to roam and the accuracy might not be so...accurate due to the fact that the 3D imaging is done by anyone that submits the data and not by 'professionals'. I believe Live Local 3D is computer generated and we all know computers never make mistakes...ok, almost never:>)
Posted by wooman7 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Compare this to Google Maps, not Google Earth
Google doesn't really have anything like this. Google Earth is a client application that you need to download and run (they bought this from a company called Keyhole, it isn't an original Google product).
This new Virtual Earth site from Microsoft is in-browser and blows away Google Maps, and in fact blows away Google Earth too.
Of course people have a choice, but Google Maps / Earth feels like yesterday's news and yesterday's "wow", there's a new player in this space and it's looking very good.
Posted by danielMann (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Blows Google Earth Into The Dust...
This Just Blew Google Earth Into the Dust!
Posted by manjasoftware (1 comment )
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Cool, but...
These new 3D mapping software ideas are cool and great for flying around and getting a 3D topographical view. From the pictures i've seen (not at home so I can't download yet), the new views from Microsoft are very good... more detailed than Google Earth's gray buildings.

Again, it depends on what you're doing. Looking for Someone's house? Streets and Trips. Mapping out a roadtrip? Streets and trips. Detailing a project where a 360* Flyby with 3D Topography is needed: GE or VE.

I think before they jump too deep into 3Ding too many cities... they need to get more high res images for rural areas.

Eventually I'd like to be able to zoom in and see enough detail to spy someone picking their nose at the time the sat snapped a photo. 3D is nice, but without high res sat imagry, its worthless.
Posted by cascadia4 (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Doesn't work in Firefox
As usual MS have gone all political and have amde this service available in IE only. I am hardly going to switch browsers just so I can use Virtual Earth.

Now at least with Google, their stuff just works. It is WC3 compliant and works on all platforms and browsers.

This is why I trust Google to give me their search results.

Microsoft search is sure to be political and point users to Windows every which way.

^&*% that. Give me Google any day.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
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simulator
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Posted by kimoggun (1 comment )
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