xbox paddle in hand, I am soaring through Seattle's skyline on a clear day. I glide dreamily by digitized images of Qwest Field and the Space Needle. Then a safety-cone-orange image pops into sight. As I get closer, it sharpens into a sign of some sort. A few more seconds and the lettering becomes legible, dashing my wild-blue-yonder revelry. It's a floating billboard for Zip Realty.
Zip hasn't found a way to suspend gravity. It's one of four advertisers to buy into Microsoft's Virtual Earth 3D, the geographic-search program that rolled out last week. The result of two years of development, the browser-based program is designed with a very clear purpose: to kill Google Earth.
During the past few years, the search giant's popular application, which allows users to view satellite photographs of just about anywhere, has alarmed privacy advocates and become, thanks to its open sourcing, a tool to help geographically plot everything from murders on "The Sopranos" to Lindsay Lohan sightings. Most important, it emerged as a key offering in the race for local-search advertising dollars.
You don't have to noodle very long with Virtual Earth to see that, in mapping terms, it is Xbox to Google Earth's Atari. Going way beyond somewhat-grainy photographs taken from space, Microsoft has combined the local-search function with a video-game-like attention to detail so stunning at times that it that renders some cities (forgive me, Baltimore) almost more lovely than they really are. As of its launch, Microsoft had created virtual cityscapes of 15 metropolises. It plans to raise that number to the hundreds or even thousands, possibly creating a searchable, interactive map of the world, or at least a significant chunk of it. Using the internet to search for a pizza parlor or a car dealership or to scout potential real estate probably, it's fair to say, won't be the same.
That significance is not lost on Microsoft, locked as it is in a long war with Google over how information is retrieved online. Steve Lawler, general manager of Virtual Earth, called the launch a "huge milestone introducing a new dimension to search."
But remember: This is Microsoft, and there are ads to be sold, which is where the floating billboards come in. At this point, the four pilot advertisers-Nissan, Fox's theatrical division and two Realtors, Zip and John L. Scott-are buying ads that are specified to a particular region within a city.
By all appearances, Virtual Earth isn't offering marketers a particularly sophisticated targeting approach, given the amount of slicing and dicing that will eventually go on once Microsoft brings to bear users' search history and other behavioral data, as it's sure to do. What is fascinating is that it gives advertisers the chance to insert ads into the landscape. But before your imagination runs away with ways to splatter your brand across Virtual Earth, know that Microsoft said it won't let Virtual Earth get as cluttered with ads as the real one.
"We're going with a conservative approach," said Chris Sampson, director-sales and marketing for Virtual Earth. "We're not going to sell the Coke building in Atlanta to Pepsi."