So I arrived home from Toronto today and got a chance to test drive the new Microsoft 3D Earth. As with all Microsoft products, the first version isn’t quite usable. But there are some very promising elements. First among those are the textured/shadowed buildings, which look amazing. It looks like Microsoft is working with Harris Corp, a military contractor specializing in communications. I understood they’ve done some good work on 3D reconstruction from satellite photos, which makes me wonder which part the Microsoft Vexcel acquisition has played… But either way, the buildings look great from a fly-over distance. There’s no level-of-detail to zoom in close yet, so don’t expect good street-level views in the near term.
Where the product suffers is the same as any early MS product — usability. Stefan pointed out that the street names are drawn right into the maps (just like the 2D version — same data apparently), meaning they only work well for one orientation (north). More importantly for me, zoom is wonky. When I zoom out of a place and right back in, I wind up somewhere else. And the Earth can easily disappear from view if you zoom all the way out when tilted.
Their engineers seem to know that’s a no no, but only provide a “click this arrow if you lose the earth” button to fix it. That says to me that someone will be soon spending most of their time rewriting that bit of code from scratch in the near term. Although I’ll say that I like the ability to hit the control key and rotate around the mouse’s current lat/long.
The other thing that was completely wonky was resizing the window for some reason. Just making this snapshot took a good five minutes of fiddling with the window size because the ActiveX control didn’t comply and the window was either frozen or stretched incorrectly half the time.
On the technical side, it looks like they’ve implemented their texture paging as one might for a 2D AJAX earth — tile based, where new tiles are loaded as needed. The problem comes in when tilted, and some areas of the screen need to be two, three, or more levels of resolution offset from others. The result in this app is that when you slide your view when tilted, whole sections of city or imagery pop in or out with no cross blending. Goggle Earth has their Universal Texturing technology ,which solves that problem for the most part, but they had a similar problem with their 3D buildings popping, which I think was probably an oversight. I’m not sure how much people would care overall, but this sort of popping detracts from the realism for me quite a bit. I also wonder if good old Skyline will dare to sue Microsoft too. Microsoft could counter-sue for their patent on ones and zeros.
As for running the app in a browser window, I’d say that’s both good and bad. GE could easily be made to run in an ActiveX control. But a) that only works in Explorer and b) it’s such a big security hole that I advise most people to block all ActiveX controls by default. Making a similar Firefox/Opera plugin would work at least as well, but I don’t know if MS would even consider this, cutting their user-base nearly in half.
Either way, whenever I talk about “integrating 3D with the browser,” putting the app in a window embedded in a web page is not quite what I personally have in mind. You could embed MS Word like that too, but I’m not sure how useful that would be if it re-initializes every time you reload or it disappears when you click a new URL. Embedding is not integration, except in very simple cases like playing a one-off video or music clip. But at least their 3D version of the Earth works like their 2D versions, which I guess is a plus for conformity.
The bigger question is whether MS can catch up to GE on features, or if they’ll try. I’d say yes, perhaps in the future, given their resources. But I don’t see it yet. Let’s not forget about all of the other things a virtual earth needs to do nowadays — layers and community involvement at a minimum, placemarks, search, overlays, measuring, GPS, popups, etc.. Drawing a 3D seamless earth is relatively hard, but making it useful and meaningful to people, beyond basic map directions, is much more important.
Besides the nice buildings, the one area where MS seems to be ahead, if you can call it that, is in advertising. If you notice in the snapshot a big orange square near the top. You may not be able to read it, but it’s an ad for a credit card near the TransAmerica building, floating in the air like a giant flag. I’m not sure I like having billboards like that, especially when I’m constantly clicking the ground to move the view. Clicking that square accidentally brings up a whole new window. I’ll leave it to Google to figure out how to put ads into GE unobtrusively, as they did with search. This approach isn’t going to fly.
All in all, it’s an interesting time for virtual earths. I expect things to heat up considerably in the next six months to a year.