Some of us knew this day was coming: Today, Microsoft added a 3D interface to Virtual Earth, giving its local search/mapping product a user experience similar to Google Earth, all within the Internet Explorer browser. Visit local.live.com in IE 6 or 7 (no support for Firefox, Opera or Safari) and you will be asked to install a plugin for Virtual Earth 3D. The system requirements are:
- Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2, Microsoft Windows Server 2003, or the Windows Vista operating system.
- Windows Internet Explorer version 6 or 7, with security settings set to enable or prompt Microsoft ActiveX controls.
- A video card with 32 MB or greater video memory that is compatible with Microsoft DirectX 9.
- Hardware acceleration must be set to Full. For more information, see Help.
Wow, I just spent a LOT of time discovering a really stupid bug with this. Installation is not easy, with a lot of random factors that can go wrong. Be sure to explore Help if you have a problem. The issue I ran into: If your default browser is not Internet Explorer, the install may try to launch in the other browser, and you may not notice what the hell is going on, clicking and clicking and clicking until you are ready to go insane. Not that I did…
Anyway, once you’ve installed the ActiveX control, you can click the 3D link to load up the 3D interface, which happens quite quickly. You get three options for quality, in order to improve speed and performance. The best part: Just like with Google Earth, you can navigate with an Xbox 360 controller, and the controls are even tighter than Google Earth’s. The left thumbstick handles position, the right thumbstick pivots the view, and the left and right triggers handle altitude.
The experience: Excellent! While Virtual Earth 3D can’t have all the bells and whistles of Google Earth, it has better memory management, runs in a freakin’ web browser (!) and actually looks better. Loading seems a little slower than Google’s, but not significantly, while the 3D building kick the ass of Google’s. Google has basic, featureless buildings, while Virtual Earth 3D’s buildings are textured. Stop moving, and you could confuse the view with a photograph (if you ignore the road names).
Seriously, Microsoft has just changed my view of what a web browser is capable of. This is stunning, and they should be damn proud. Google is going to have a hard time living up to this.
I’ve done a 24-minute video, flying around a few cities. It should be up on Google Video sometime later today. Check back for it. If you can’t wait, CNet has one.
As you’ll see in the video, Microsoft has set up floating billboards around the 3D cities, a cool way of monetizing things. The billboards float in the air, so you know they aren’t part of the cityscapes, but you just want to run up to them and see what they say.
Here are the cities they are claiming 3D views of:
- Fort Worth
- Las Vegas
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
- San Jose
Obviously missing from this list, but present in my video, is my hometown of New York City. Some cities don’t have a lot of buildings, but a few worth checking out, so they aren’t on the list. Don’t be afraid to check out something not listed.
“We think this is going to open a new dimension in search,” said Stephen Lawler, general manager of Virtual Earth. “It’s the beginning of the 3-D Web.”
Microsoft also is offering online advertisers a chance to place marketing messages on artificially manufactured billboards dotting the 3-D landscapes. Google also shows ads in its mapping service, but those appear in more mundane thumbnails pointing to a specific location.
In a statement, Google welcomed Microsoft’s mapping improvements while signaling its intention to protect its turf. “We will continue innovating to provide users with the fastest and easiest search experience on the Web,” Google said.
Microsoft acquired the new technology through its acquisition of Vexcel Corp. earlier this year. One advantage, Microsoft says, is the Virtual Earth 3D images are more realistic and detailed than those in the Google Earth program.
Danny Sullivan provides these images of San Francisco and Seattle:
I’ve got a bunch of great screenshots for you to enjoy:
The Virtual Earth team blogs about it, noting this release is called Spaceland, and shows how five lines of code can to get the map control for Virtual Earth 3D. See, you can use this is web applications, just like you would Google Maps, which is incredible considering the power behind it.