Microsoft Virtual Earth – Now in 3D and With Billboards

Microsoft is unveiling its integration of detailed 3D imagery into its Virtual Earth this afternoon (see US users with Vista-ready Windows computers and IE 6 or 7 will be able to navigate through an aerial view of 15 select cities with enough detail to discern the texture of buildings and read clickable billboards from the likes of Fox, Nissan and John L. Scott Real Estate. Virtual Earth 3D is expected to expand to cover up to 100 cities around the world by the end of next summer.

Unlike Google Earth, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth is experienced directly inside of IE as part of search results. Search team member Bobby Figueroa told me that the 3D functionality would be useful to many business customers as an integrated feature in offerings like Zillow’s real estate search. The imagery was taken from planes and processed with proprietary algorithms.

He also told me that advertising was being integrated into Virtual Earth for the sake of realism. In real life, soda machines don’t appear with black or white labels – they say Coke or Pepsi on them, he told me. To insufficiently brand Virtual Earth would apparently be irresponsible in some way, perhaps as an artistic or cultural loss. Figueroa said that billboards would have to prove compelling to users or they would not zoom in close enough to view them in detail and click through. Figueroa would not discuss the particular relationship with the first wave of advertisers but said that the company would evaluate all methods of ad sales and tracking in order to determine what worked best.

I certainly have no inherent objection to advertising, but I’m not excited about it being the first thing I see when I gain the ability to see a new environment in 3D. It seems like a cynical priority when a dazzling new technology is first rolled out. I don’t know what I expected though, so I’ll wish Vista-ready Windows owners who use IE the best of luck in enjoying the use of a newly 3D virtual world.

You’ve also got to wonder if anything will ever come of the really impressive Street-Side preview, which we wrote about in February. See also the 3D photo fly through app in the works in Live Labs, called Photosynth.

In addition to integration of Virtual Earth with search and some browsers, another thing you have to give Microsoft credit for is seriously improved picture quality. See the following two shots of San Francisco, Virtual Earth 3D on the left and Google Earth on the right. Lastly a very nice looking shot found on the Virtual Earth blog. Google’s got some catching up to in regards to image detail. I’m going to try to grab an image of a billboard when I can.

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