The mapping interface provides consumers with a three-dimensional experience to search, browse and explore the real world online.
Virtual Earth 3-D lets users navigate over cities and between buildings much like the way they can in virtual-reality environments, but it is different from many other offerings in the market as it is a downloadable browser application, Stephen Lawler, general manager of Microsofts Virtual Earth Group, told eWEEK.
But the application currently only works with Microsofts own Internet Explorer browser, although the team is working to make it available on other browsers like Firefox and, eventually, Apple computers, he said.
"This platform is setting a new precedent, and it is really the beginning of the 3-D Web. We are at the forefront of bringing this new paradigm to customers, and over time people will grow to expect this kind of experience for all their data," he said.
When users now visit Live Search, type a query into the search bar and click on the "maps" tab, they will get their search results in a map context.
This lets them explore the area using two-dimensional, aerial and birds-eye views, or with 3-D models with Virtual Earth 3-D, he said.
The new technology compiles photographic images of cities and terrain to generate textured, photorealistic 3-D models with engineering-level accuracy.
"In order to create a textured model of a building, each section of the building needs to be available in at least 40 different photos," Lawler said. "When a plane is flying over a city, each picture needs to overlap the previous picture taken by 90 percent. In order to create a detailed textured model, we take photos from one direction, directly above the city."
The 3-D models will initially be available for 15 U.S. cities—San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle; Boston; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Detroit; Phoenix; Houston; Baltimore; Atlanta; Denver; Dallas; and Fort Worth, Texas—and will be expanded at a rate of eight new cities a month until next spring, when that is ratcheted up even more, he said.
Live Search also gives users access to real-time traffic information in some 70 major U.S. cities, as well as business and people listings that help consumers find local information and act on it.
All this data is stored in thousands of servers in Microsofts data center, which holds hundreds of terabytes of data between imagery, maps and all the other information. "This has only been made possible because of the ability to have massive scalable server cluster farms," Lawler said.
While a managed control has to be downloaded into the browser rather than to a hard drive, "once you have that control you dont have to do anything else to provision it," Lawler said, adding that customers can navigate and pan around the 3-D maps using the user interface or their Xbox controls.
"We are compressing and decompressing data very smartly on the fire and progressively load things, like tiles in buildings, so that we render different levels of detail to get users interacting with it. We had to be really smart about how we did this as it is not a Windows application but rather a managed control in a browser," Lawler said.
The imagery provided is actual, as is the terrain, which reflects the real elevation and other characteristics. "It feels like you are in a game, but it is all real," he said.