Microsofts Live Search offering just got a lot more sophisticated with the addition of Virtual Earth 3-D, a new online mapping interface currently available in the United States.
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.
The user is always in the drivers seat and can do searches while in navigation mode, giving the user the control, unlike search, where it feels like the “black box” is in the drivers seat, he said.
“This is totally different to what Google Earth provides. Unlike their gray boxes, we thought the real world should really look like the real world. We went and did something that has never been done before and is a total game-changer,” Lawler said.
The 300 staff members on the Virtual Earth team, many of whom hold advanced degrees like Ph.Ds, built a software pipeline using algorithms that automatically build the geometric features and the textured models.
This is very different from what Sketchup produced, he said.
There is also an active community outside of Microsoft developing applications around this technology, which are shared with one another and which are not vetted by Microsoft.
“Eventually we will also let them do 3-D creation in areas that we dont get to,” Lawler said, adding that Microsofts approach has significantly reduced the cost of real-life 3-D modeling.
The service is targeted at three classes of users: the consumer, businesses and enterprises, and developers.
On the consumer side, advertisements will be available within the Virtual Earth 3-D experience and will be presented similar to billboards on the side of roads.
These ads are created using a combination of technologies from Virtual Earth, Massive Inc. and the advertising platform from Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions.
The billboards will be dynamic rather than static, and will be located in fixed locations. There will be no pop-ups and, in the future, the ads on these virtual billboards will probably be tailored to match what the user is searching for, Lawler said.
There are some 1,000 businesses currently using the Microsoft platform—internally and externally, from realtors to oil producers—who want to monitor their most critical assets, reach out to customers, offer them an immersive experience and increase customer satisfaction, he said.
“For example, British Petroleum used the platform for an executive digital dashboard. They had a picture of the Gulf area and, using Virtual Earth, they overlaid their offshore oil rigs and had real-time information about the people on those rigs as well as live feeds from other Web services like ocean currents and hurricane weather services,” Lawler said.
This allows them to monitor their most important assets and make mission-critical decisions, he said, noting that this is a nonadvertising platform for these users, including JW Marriott and Expedia, who pay for the service on a transaction basis.
On the developer front, this is the first platform that allows developers to mash up 3-D, Lawler said, noting that switching to 3-D requires just one parameter change to their existing application.
“All the application programming interfaces [APIs] are the same, as are all the calls, and they toggle back and forth between 3-D and birds-eye view,” he said. “We have removed all the complexity and built in the control so developers have a lot of power on our unique platform.”
Developers can also use the Virtual Earth 3-D to build these search capabilities into their own applications and Web sites. This and other APIs for Live Search are offered at no cost to them, but they can get additional support and other benefits through a service-level agreement with Microsoft, Lawler said.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include information and comments from Microsoft.