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RealTime IT News

Earth to Virtual Earth

Microsoft gave a sneak preview of a future MSN service called Virtual Earth that's designed to be a deeply immersive local search experience.

Tom Bailey, director of sales and marketing for Microsoft's MapPoint division, said it's an addition to traditional local search where you type a query and get a response. "Somebody can orient around a location and dive into that location -- discover, explore and plan activities related to that location."

The new service, which will be offered free as part of MSN beginning later this summer, combines features of search and MapPoint.

Users will be able to map a particular location and then search local listings for businesses nearby. Eventually, according to the demonstration, theyll be able to click on a listing and get more information about the business. Search results appear in a box on the left of the map; they contain the top 10 results based on proximity to the location. If a searcher scrolls along the map, the results change dynamically to match the new location.

Users can add multiple searches to the map; for example, after they've found the nearest restaurant, they can search for an ATM to get the cash to pay for the meal.

"You may know where your favorite restaurant is, but you may not know what's around there to allow you to do other activities while you're in the area," Bailey explained.

Eventually, Bailey said, the service will be supported by sponsored listings provided by Overture Services, Yahoo's pay-per-click advertising service. Listings come from MSN search, and over time, Bailey said, the company will incorporate its MapPoint service that powers the "find the nearest location" services of corporations including Starbucks and Marriott.

The MSN Virtual Earth announcement followed a preview of Google Earth last Friday. During a press event at Google headquarters, Keyhole General Manager John Hanke demonstrated Google Earth, the next iteration of the Keyhole technology, slated to launch in a few weeks. Google Earth will add a new global database and new data sources, such as NASA terrain maps and integrate with Google Local and Google Maps. The demo was very similar to the MSN Virtual Earth demonstration.

Four things differentiate MSN Virtual Earth from Google Earth, according to Bailey. First, MSN will roll out the features free to all users.

Google Earth will be made available in beta only to paying Keyhole subscribers, according to Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez, although they won't be charged extra for the new functionality.

Second, while both offer the ability to print maps and driving directions, MSN Virtual Earth also lets users save listings and details to a scratch pad, which can be e-mailed, blogged, saved or used to create driving itineraries between different locations and businesses.

Third, while Google Maps employs Asynchronous JavaScript + XML, or AJAX, to create a rich HTML application without any downloads, Google Earth would require users to download client software. MSN's Bailey noted that the AJAX functionality was created by Microsoft and implemented in the Internet Explorer browser.

"We think requiring a software download is one thing that's kept Keyhole usage fairly modest," Bailey said, adding that Virtual Earth also will take advantage of AJAX.

Fourth, while Google Earth users can toggle between map view and a zoomable streaming aerial view, MSN adds a third way of seeing the terrain, called "eagle eye view," thanks to a partnership with Pictometry.

With Pictometry's patented method, planes fly over locations at 5000 feet and 2500 feet, photographing the landscape from four directions. The result, according to Chief Marketing Officer Dante Pennachia, is "twelve different views of every square foot of everything we fly."

These include geo-referenced oblique angle shots, MSN's so-called eagle view.

"Every image is correctly referenced with longitude and latitude, which satellite images also provide," Pennachia said. "But because of the 45-degree angle, we have the Z coordinate, the height of anything, as well."

The oblique images show buildings and other landscape elements at about a 45 degree angle, rather than from directly overhead, as satellite images do, making visible building and land attributes such as doors, windows, the number of floors, building composition, roads and trees. The company says the oblique view is easier for most people to understand than the aerial view.

Many of Pictometry's customers are county or municipal governments, public safety and law enforcement organizations. For example, a fire chief might use its images to measure the height of an elevator shaft for placement of ladders and hoses.

Pictometry images don't include potentially invasive details, the company is careful to point out. Users can zoom, but the resolution deteriorates before such things as auto license plate numbers, building addresses or people's faces can be recognized.

Pictometry only photographs regions for which there's a paying customer; it charges municipalities based on the square mileage to be covered. To date, the company has imagery for 132 counties in the United States, including the entire State of Massachusetts; it has a contract to document the State of Rhode Island as well.

The five-year contract with MSN, for an unspecified amount, licenses Pictometry's existing images for non-commercial use only. "We expect Microsoft will want some additional imagery," Pennachia said.

"We think it will be much more useful, giving people a better visual reference as to where something is in a particular building," MSN's Bailey said.

Bailey said the timing of MSN's announcement was not influenced by Google's news. Microsoft has previewed the underlying technology before. Virtual Earth is based on Terra Server, a Microsoft Research project led by researchers Jim Gray and Tom Barclay and is designed to offer public access the massive amounts of online data generated by astronomers and the U.S. Geological Survey. The project showcases the scalability of SQL Server 2000 and Windows 2000 Datacenter Server.

Amazon.com is building its own database of street-level photos of businesses as an enhancement to local search in its A9 search service. When it launched in January 2005, A9 had around 20 million photos of businesses in 10 major United States cities.