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Microsoft Virtual Earth in the Round

SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft's Live Search has a new look.

Microsoft's search and ad teams trekked south to San Francisco last night to celebrate the launch of Virtual Earth 3D, a new online mapping interface for its Live Search offering. It provides city imagery in the round.

When Live Search users click on the "maps" tab, search results appear in a map context with the option of exploring the area using not only the standard aerial and bird's-eye views, but also three-dimensional models.

So far, 3D views are available for 15 U.S. cities. Steven Lawler, general manager of Virtual Earth, said Microsoft plans to roll out more as fast as possible.

According to Jim Gray, a distinguished engineer with Microsoft Research, models are made by overlaying photographic images over 3D models.

Over time, he said, it should be possible to use consumer-generated content to create some of the models. For example, everyone who goes to Paris takes a picture of Notre Dam. And Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing service has implemented geo-tagging for pix uploaded from mobile cameras, using the location information provided by cell providers.

Add that to the tagging done within social media, and it should be possible to find enough third-party photos to skin that 3D model of Notre Dam.

Still to be determined would be rights and permissions. Flickr allows users to add Creative Commons licenses to the public photos they post, but defining whether or when Microsoft's use would be commercial would be a gnarly problem.

Some data overlays are available within the service, including real-time traffic information for some cities, so that someone could not only see the route she'd be driving but also see how bad traffic was. Yellow and white pages listings let you not only find someone's home or business but also call them with one click.

Microsoft has made Virtual Earth 3D available to third-party developers through open application programming interfaces  that are free for up to 100,000 API calls a day.

Tools available at the Live Developers portal let developers mash up services and install Live functionality without having to write code.

The World's a Game

"Mapping is moving to a very dynamic realm, and starting to look more like gaming," said analyst Greg Sterling, principal of Sterling Market Intelligence. He said that Virtual Earth 3D brings the flyover, zoom-in functionality of the downloadable Google Earth into the browser window, making it more broadly accessible. "There are lots of interesting possibilities with this," he added, "including social applications, advertising, and the ability to embed video or e-commerce in this environment."

Microsoft already is demonstrating some advertising, taking advantage of technology acquired with its purchase of Massive earlier this year. Massive offers a platform for dynamically serving and tracking advertisements into online games, so that, for example, every time a player walks by a billboard, a new ad appears on it.

Ads can tie searchers directly to information and e-commerce. For example, someone searching for the title of a film on the Seattle map would see numbers on the map corresponding to theaters where the film was showing. Clicking on any number could bring up show times -- and let the searcher buy tickets with a single click.

"They're standard display ads placed within the 3D environment," said Alex Daley, marketing manager for the Virtual Earth platform. The placement is physical and based on real-world metrics, for example, a billboard is 60 meters wide -- not 100 pixels wide. That's important, because it ties the ad to the virtual view.

Today, the ads are targeted by location. "It's a hyper-local context," Daley said. "Because I looked for that location, the ad is relevant." The goal is to eventually target the ads to individuals, based on their profiles developed from their use of all MSN/Live services.

At this point, the Virtual Earth ads are being sold by ad reps, the old-fashioned way, to major national advertisers including Toyota. But Massive's technology already has been incorporated into Microsoft's adCenter search and display advertising platform, so eventually, advertisers could buy search keywords, display ads on MSN.com and a Phoenix billboard all from the same interface, and track them all with the same analytics.

"All these brands are racing into [online virtual world] Second Life, setting up their virtual stores," Sterling said. "This is not that far removed. The nature of the environment is really engaging, and people will want to get in front of users in that context."