Microsoft mapping goes 3D

New Virtual Earth interface merges gaming world photorealism with images of real-world cities. Photos: Virtual Earth 3D marries maps, search Video: Microsoft takes on Google

Microsoft on Monday unveiled a new, downloadable browser application that brings the photorealism and maneuverability of gaming into its online mapping and local search service.

In Virtual Earth 3D, which is part of Microsoft's Live Search, users can "fly" over cities and in between buildings just like they do in virtual-reality environments, like that found in the online 3D world of . However, in the Microsoft interface there are no avatars, and the buildings, roadways and geographical landmarks depicted are replicas of real urban landscapes rather than versions of a community based on fantasy.

But Virtual Earth 3D does include fixtures that might not necessarily be visible in the real world: "virtual billboards" float above buildings with advertisements on them as part of a pilot advertising program, said Stephen Lawler, general manager of the Virtual Earth group. For instance, Fox has a virtual billboard hovering above the AMC cinema in downtown San Francisco. Other advertisers are Nissan Motor, Zip Realty and John L. Scott realty.

Different advertisers will rotate through the billboard ads, and users will be able to click on them to go to the advertiser's Web site. Eventually, the ads may be targeted to reflect the user's query, Lawler said.

The virtual billboards bring online map advertising to a whole new level. Currently, other mapping services feature either text ads to the side of the map or ads in pop-up windows or bubbles.

The virtual billboard functionality comes from Massive, an in-game advertising company that, in May, Microsoft said it was acquiring. The Massive technology enables designers to render a graphic on top of any surface in a 3D environment.

Microsoft was able to create the lifelike cities with technology and expertise it acquired with the purchase of Vexcel, a provider of photogrammetry, imagery and remote-sensing technology. Microsoft announced the purchase plans in March.

"We built photorealistic cities with engineering-precise accuracy," Lawler said. "We fly the Vexcel aerial camera over the cities and collect all this imagery and create an engineering production pipeline that is highly automated" instead of creating each building by hand, he said. Automating the process cuts down the cost of building 3D environments to hundreds of thousands of dollars from more than $1 million, he added.

Three-dimensional models are built for 15 U.S. cities, with more to come, he said. The cities are San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle; Boston; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Detroit; Phoenix; Houston; Baltimore; Atlanta; Denver; Dallas; and Fort Worth, Texas.

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Users can choose between the two-dimensional views, aerial or birds-eye views, and the three-dimensional interface. They can use the existing map services, such as business listings, white pages, traffic information and driving directions, on any of the interfaces.

Microsoft has been aiming for an edge in mapping innovation as it competes with Google, Yahoo and AOL to attract users and advertisers to its online search services. Microsoft unveiled its unique 45-degree bird's-eye view feature late last year.

Virtual Earth 3D sets itself apart from the competition because users don't have to download it to their hard drive, can run it in the browser and still enjoy the graphical richness it offers, said Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence. In addition, Microsoft could eventually put video in the virtual billboard ads, he said.

"It makes this virtual city environment capable of all kinds of advertising, Sterling said. "It signals a larger trend of the Internet becoming more of a visually immersive environment. This takes mapping to the next level."

Microsoft also is opening up the application programming interface for Virtual Earth 3D to allow developers to build the search features into their own applications and Web sites.

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