Microsoft launches 'Virtual Earth' beta

Test version of tool combines mapping, satellite imagery and yellow-pages data. Coming later: views from 45-degree angles. Touring Redmond's new service

Microsoft has unveiled a test version of a new location-based search tool, the software giant said Monday.

Virtual Earth--which offers a combination of aerial imagery, maps and yellow-pages data--is designed to let users search for and share information about specific U.S. locations, the company said.

For example, a searcher can enter an address and see a map, an aerial photograph or an aerial photo overlaid with highway labels. A search field on the upper left lets the user retrieve information on businesses and other sites, which the tool displays in a collapsible pane. Virtual Earth relies on licensed yellow-pages directories for this information, Microsoft said.

Additionally, a "scratch pad" features lets people save addresses that they've searched for.

The service, which Microsoft announced in May , is free. It's designed to interact with other Microsoft tools, including MapPoint, the local features of MSN Search, and aerial imagery from TerraServer-USA, the software giant said.

Virtual Earth also includes a feature called "Locate Me" that determines the user's location using Wi-Fi access points or Internet Protocol address geocoding. The information is then presented in the form of a map with the user's location highlighted.

The tool also offers features for e-mailing search results, bookmarking them or posting them on a blog. People can zoom in or pan the aerial pictures via a virtual compass.

"When you're in an unfamiliar city and need to find a nearby Chinese restaurant or ATM within walking distance of your hotel, a traditional Internet search experience won't give you the visual location-specific information you need," Stephen Lawler, general manager of Virtual Earth, said in a statement. "MSN Virtual Earth provides a deeply immersive search experience that lets people see what it's like to be in a location and easily explore what they can do there."

In the next beta version of the tool, slated for release later this year, the company plans to add bird's-eye-view imagery depicting cities, landmarks and other sites at a 45-degree angle. The feature will rely on technology from Pictometry International.

Mapping services based on satellite imagery have been catching the attention of search companies lately.

A service announced by Google recently already incorporates a feature that allows people to see buildings and terrains in three-dimension.


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