Microsoft on Monday took the wraps off Virtual Earth 3D, a new version of the company's mapping application that enables users to "fly" through three-dimensional models of cities from directly within their Web browser - complete with virtual billboards.
The idea is that users can type a query into Windows Live Search and click on the "maps" tab to bring up results in a local context, with the ability to view two-dimensional aerial and bird's-eye imagery, or the new 3D models offered by Virtual Earth.
The service is poised to compete with Google Earth, a standalone application that complements the search giant's online mapping service. But Microsoft says its offering takes the concept to another level, by bringing the virtual world closer to the physical world.
Instead of grey scale boxes of buildings like in Google Earth, Virtual Earth 3D uses photographs to create realistic, textured buildings. Microsoft says it developed the cameras it uses to capture the images in house, as well as creating an algorithmic program to build the textured 3D models.
However, because of the level of detail Virtual Earth 3D offers, Microsoft is launching the product with support for only 15 cities. On the list are San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Dallas, Fort Worth, Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, San Jose, Phoenix, and Houston.
Not everything will be real, however. Microsoft is putting virtual billboards into the 3D cities it creates, enabling the company to sell advertising directly in these virtual worlds. For example, a billboard advertises Fox above the AMC Lowes cinema in San Francisco. Microsoft was able to accomplish this through technology it acquired from in-game advertising company Massive last April.
Microsoft says it plans to continually add new cities to the service, as well as expanding Virtual Earth to other countries. Developers will also be given access to the APIs in order to integrate the 3D cities into their applications, although this functionality will require a fee.
As I tested, it seems Virtual Earth 3D only works in Internet Explorer.