Yesterday I made some initial comments on the new Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D (VE3D). I had expectations that Microsoft’s first release of Virtual Earth 3D would be a big event which would spawn really strong competition between Google and Microsoft. Since I wasn’t able to run the program, I was disappointed, and reacted accordingly. No apologies though. I have now had a chance to play with VE3D (on another computer) and I do see some positives. However, VE3D’s first beta is a long way from having the breadth of features developed in Google Earth over the past several years (GE was a product called Keyhole before Google bought it in 2004). Even Microsoft recognizes this (according to at least one of VE3D’s developers).
By the way, I think strong competition from other players in the virtual globe application field will ultimately be to the benefit to all of us wanting to use them. After all, if it drives Google, Microsoft and other companies to make even better products and data for free, we all win. There are several virtual globes out there: NASA Worldwind, SkylineGlobe, EarthSlot, and Celestia – to name a few. Another significant one is coming out soon from GIS software maker ESRI called ArcGIS Explorer.
Now, since I’ve had a chance to use the new VE3D application for a few hours let me share some more thoughts.
[Please realize that I'm a big fan of Google Earth (and not an employee of Google). So, naturally my views are somewhat slanted. I started working in the 3D graphics software industry over 25 years ago, and do have some experience with these types of applications. But, I'll try to confine myself mostly to a user-perspective.]
- VE3D definitely qualifies as a virtual globe, and has some very nice features. The addition of complete cities with photo-realistic 3D buildings is definitely superior to any the built-in cities currently available in Google Earth. Kudos to Microsoft for doing this, and I look forward to seeing more cities. However, GE 4 is certainly able to display 3D cities with the same or better quality. And Worldwind, SkylineGlobe, and soon ArcGIS Explorer, can render textured buildings as well. When someone figures out a way to transfer the VE3D building models over to GE’s KMZ file format, it will of course help all virtual globes supporting KMZ be able to view the buildings as well (assuming Microsoft would allow it). Of course, if VE3D supports 3D KMZ files they would be able to use KMZ-based 3D models from Google’s 3DWarehouse. And then everyone would have more photo-realistic 3D buildings.
- The decision to build VE3D as a modular system is definitely a smart move allowing VE3D to be used as either a plug-in for a browser, or as a separate application. I’m sure someone will develop plug-ins allowing it to be used in other browsers on Windows. However, the real question is whether VE3D can be easily ported to other OSes like the Mac or Linux. And, I still think it was very Microsoft-like (and uncool) to only release VE3D supporting IE and not at least Firefox.
- The interface for moving around the 3D world in VE3D I sometimes found awkward. Having to hold down both the CTRL key and the left mouse button to pan and tilt the view? Why not just make it work with the middle mouse like GE (and other 3D programs)? I haven’t tried the alternative controller interface (gamepads, joysticks, etc.). But, I assume it is similar to the ones in Google Earth 4.
- The level of detail presented in VE3D is often less than it should be. For example, VE3D will load low-res satellite views even when higher res photos are available when viewed at an angle/tilt (i.e. further away scenery doesn’t load realistic photos). This is more bandwidth efficient, but negatively impacts the quality of scenery. Also, can you turn off the buildings in the 3D mode? I’d like to see the real photos sometimes instead of the 3D buildings, while still seeing the surrounding terrain in 3D. I couldn’t find this option.
- This is just an opinion, but I think it was tacky deciding to start out with big virtual billboard ads with VE3D’s first public beta release.
- On my brand new laptop, it takes just a bit longer to load both IE and then the VE3D module than it does to load GE. The installation process for VE3D is a fair bit longer and has several more steps (especially if you haven’t already loaded .Net 2.0).
I’m glad VE3D is out at last. I’ve been expecting Microsoft to release something for months. The VE3D cities are really cool. And, I like the bird’s eye view photos as well. I’m sure Microsoft’s 3D building technology will enable more cities to be developed rapidly. One of the Microsoft people interviewed said the company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in technology for Virtual Earth. I imagine this means even more good things will be coming for Virtual Earth 3D in the near future. Let’s face it – virtual globes are just going to continue to get better and better. Future versions of Microsoft’s VE3D will definitely keep Google on their toes. But, as it stands so far I don’t think a lot of people will stop using GE because of this release. Google Earth has much more in features, more information, more imagery, more user-contributed data, more international data, and a much wider and larger audience. But, I’m not going to do a side-by-side comparison yet. It’s too early at this stage.
Those are just a few thoughts from this GE fan…