Microsoft Ready to Take on Google Earth

Virtual Earth 3D Also Ready to Integrate Floating Billboards

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Xbox paddle in hand, I am soaring through Seattle's skyline on a clear day. I glide dreamily by digitized images of the 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.
See that little orange sign? It's a floating billboard for Zip Realty. Click to see larger photo.

Zip hasn't found a way to suspend gravity. It's one of four advertisers to buy into Microsoft's Virtual Earth 3D, the new geographic-search program that rolled out yesterday. The result of two years of development, the browser-based program is designed with a very clear purpose: to kill Google Earth.

Race for local search ad dollars
Over 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 importantly, 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 yesterday's 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, three-dimensional map of the world, or at least a significant chunk of it. Using the Internet to search for a pizza parlor, a car dealership or scout out 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 sought and retrieved online. At a launch party at a swanky bar here, Steve Lawler, general manager of Virtual Earth, called the launch a "huge milestone introducing a new dimension to search," "the beginning of the 3-D web" and "a new form of visual relevance."

Those floating billboards
Mr. Lawler, well-deserved as his evangelical enthusiasm might be, isn't exactly Magellan working for the glory of the crown. 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 right now 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 right now is that it gives advertisers the chance to insert their ads right into the landscape. That's right -- into the landscape. 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."

The rules of virtual Earth
Mr. Sampson explained that there are two factors determining the freedom -- or lack thereof -- that marketers have in communicating in virtual Earth: the real world and the law. He said that while the Space Needle or the TransAmerica Building in San Francisco might make marvelous facades for hawking products, copyright law forbids monkeying with their images. That said, Mr. Sampson allowed he could see ways for, say, a stadium sponsor to extend its presence around the physical building. For instance, the Qwest logo on the side of its namesake stadium had been enhanced, making it legible at a higher altitude than in reality. Moreover, like Google Earth, Virtual Earth has an interface users can incorporate it into their mash-ups, though only in Internet Explorer at first.

Microsoft isn't spelling out exactly how those ad policies will evolve and, of course, one need not be a purist to argue that the whole reality thing goes out the window when you're staring at a billboard that levitates over Seattle. What's to stop Microsoft from creating a hybrid reality, largely a photorealisitc copy of the real world that's just Photoshopped a bit by advertisers? Mr. Sampson gave a little shrug and said, "It really is an interesting bridge between the real world and Second Life."
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