Well, Microsoft has been working hard. Last night they released a major upgrade to Virtual Earth that includes some impressive new features. Here’s an excellent summary of the new features by Microsoft Steve Lombardi. NOTE: you will have to install the new version when you go to visit the Virtual Earth site – virtualearth.com and click on the 3D option. Let me summarize the key new features I see from a Google Earth perspective:
Improved 3D buildings – Virtual Earth 3D already had more buildings with consistent quality textures (compared to GE). But, the texture resolution was low. They’ve now upgraded the texture resolution, increased the range of coverage to suburb areas, AND are now rendering trees as well! So far, only Las Vegas, Dallas, Denver and Phoenix have this new “version 2” upgrade. But, they promise hundreds of cities by the end of the year. Here’s my initial impression: Models for the first city I tried took a while to load, but not terribly slow. Textures definitely look better, although not a huge increase in resolution. For some reason anti-aliasing is not working on my computer so edges on models look jaggy. The trees look really good – at least in Las Vegas. If they are automatically rendering trees from photogrammetry, I’m really impressed! [UPDATE 1030 ET: Steve pointed me to a new blog post, by Jerry Skaw of Microsoft, sharing more details about the 3D rendering. And the trees are automatically generated – and it matches my guess at how they would do it. See the post for more details and screenshots.]
Export to KML – Microsoft has added the ability to export collections (their equivalent of placemarks) to KML, GPX, and GeoRSS. This means you can now save collections to files and use them in other things like Google Earth, or put placemarks on your GPS. Another step in improving functionality for practical use.
3D Modeling Improved Also – Steve also mentions that their 3D modeling tool, 3DVidia, was also upgraded. I’ll have to look at it, but the earlier version didn’t seem as good as SketchUp.
Bird’s Eye Enhanced – You can now see street/map labels inside Bird’s Eye views. This is a cool trick in projection since the photos are taken at different angles. It makes Bird’s Eye much more useful as well. Cool feature!
MapCruncher integration – MapCruncher is Microsoft’s application that lets you place maps and photos over a location very accurately. They’ve now integrated this with Virtual Earth 3D. I haven’t tested this yet. But, since VE3D was missing a way to put image overlays into their world, this is a step in the right direction. I just wonder how hard it will be to use. GE has a very easy and intuitive interface for adding image overlays. But, it doesn’t have the ability to accurately project them into other than rectangular overlays.
Explore Collections – Steve called this GeoWeb Explorations. It’s kind of like dynamically searching for user content as you move your view. Something I think Google Earth should be doing as well. You find the option in VE3D under the “Collections->Explore” option in the upper right. They have added the ability to filter your searches by KML, or other tags that appear in your scene. And, you can filter based on photos, OR 3D models. I’m guessing Microsoft has developed their own equivalent of 3D Warehouse with a few models. I haven’t found a lot of models available in this mode yet.
Movie Capture – Microsoft has a new capability to make movies and even claim the ability to capture up to HD quality movies. Google Earth Pro does not do a good job of capturing movies at higher frame rates (probably due to using the built-in Microsoft video codec). But, I use Fraps and can capture HD for GE anyway.
Real-time Traffic – Microsoft has a new traffic application called ClearFlow that allows it to predict traffic patterns based on other traffic data. This sounds like impressive stuff. See the NY Times article, and Mickey says some good stuff about it at Digital Earth Blog. Mickey also notes what they really need is a mobile version – which I’m sure will come eventually.
Improved KML Support – Steve says they can support KML files with a new “&mapurl=” parameter – meaning you can add the URL of a KML file without having to load it inside the app. He notes this means you can view a Google Mays MyMap inside Virtual Earth. Interesting! I tried this, but it is a little tricky. Steve gives example URLs for how to use the new parameter. You then look for the “View in Google Earth” inside your Google MyMaps and copy that link as your URL.
Overall – I would say this is a significant upgrade to Virtual Earth. The new features have some impressive capabilities. I’m obviously a big fan of Google Earth, so my opinion may be slanted. But, I still feel the Virtual Earth 3D interface is not as friendly or smooth as Google Earth. It will be interesting to see whether the inclusion of MapCruncher makes it easier for people to add content like image overlays. The enhancement to the 3D buildings is welcome, as is the slick addition of labels for Bird’s Eye imagery. The 3D buildings (and trees!) and Bird’s Eye imagery are still the main two attractions for me to use Virtual Earth 3D. But, not enough for me to use it every day.