Virtual Earth 3D – A real look

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.]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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…

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. 1: I’m not sure whether we will see and KMZ exporter. I studied the format VE uses, and it’s seems somewhat far more complex than KMZ (which is probably also why it performs so well with many buildings). You would probably need to make a local copy and convert it, and then republish it with new bitmaps (VE uses DXT1 compressed images – I haven’t figured the geometry out yet, but it seems to be coming from a 3D tile server). You would probably see KMZ/KML in VE instead. This is actually fairly easy to do as well (although there is missing some documentation still).
    4: Yes you can turn off buildings. Just use the Javascript API. It’s very easy (ok this it not native in the local live app, but as I said easy to do). You can even replace/add/remove whatever datasource you want (imagery, 3D models, terrain model), with your own (given you reverse-engineer the format unless they soon document the format). Something that Google Earth is missing.

  2. I agree with most of these points – but as a trackball user (due to repetitive strain injury) I find the MSVE control system much easier to use than GE’s middle mouse click.
    I also love how the Ctrl+Click to rotate pivots around the clicked point – not the screen focus point. This makes it much easier to get the required viewpoint.
    Javascript programmability is a VERY big deal too.
    I hope we eventually see a a mix of data-centric (KML-like) as well as logic-centric control mechanisms.
    The billboards. Hmmmm. I don’t mind advertising in virtual worlds – but at least use model billboards/banners at streetside like the real-world. I’m sure they’ll do this once the skies become crowded enough though – placing them in the sky is simply a real quick way to get people to understand the possibilities, and buy advertising space fast.
    Well done MS.

  3. You don’t mention whether it caches the data locally. That would be a big factor for those of us with slow internet connections or who pay for bandwidth.

  4. Hi Frank – I’m glad to see you were able to try Virtual Earth 3D out. A number of us here on the VE team read your blog often and value your opinion on our product, and your constructive feedback to help us improve it. for that matter, we welcome that level of feedback from anyone here. email your bugs, feature requests or other feedback to me at stevelom a-t microsoft and I’ll make sure it gets to the right persons inbox.
    A couple of comments on your comments
    4. in 3d view you can toggle buildings on and off with SHIFT-B. You can toggle building details on/off with SHIFT-D. When detail is turned off, textures aren’t rendered and are instead replaced with a representative color sampled from the texture. In both of these cases, the buildings and textures are being progressively downloaded – these options just toggle their display. To turn off the download of these features, therefore improving performance, go to the OPTIONS panel (link in upper right) and choose ‘3D View Settings’. In here you can choose from 3 Detail settings trading off performance against details. If you choose ‘Balanced’ you will get an experience similar to what you might see in Google Earth (building but no textures) You can also set your disk Cache size in this panel.
    5. I actually think the implementation of the advertising in VE is quite reasonable! No joke, you can ask anyone here in our office and they’ll tell you I’ve been a pretty tough critic of ad abuse. The group working on ads strived to make the advertising in VE as context sensitive as possible, and even as aesthetically pleasing and unobtrusive as an ad can be. Yes, Ads can be tacky – take a look around the web and you will find more ad spam, link farms and carpet bombing than ever before. And a lot of shady practices where ad links are disguised as web content. I guess our opinion will fork here, but I don’t see the ads in VE as being tacky at all.
    Steve Lombardi
    VE Program Manager

  5. I’ve download the ActiveX plugin for running in IE (I’m a Opera and Firefox user) but VE doesn�t run on my system saying that I’m not a USA user.
    Bad..Only after I’ve downloaded more than 5 Mb of this software and the end of instalation VE give this message ! If Brazil and others countries can�t feel the taste of VE why doesn�t warn theses users ? Microsoft has a long way to learn about user satisfaction…and respect.

  6. Ricardo:
    This is the workaround to use VE in other regions….
    1. Uninstall Virtual Earth 3D
    2. Temporarily change your regional settings (using the control panel) to English-US
    3. Install Virtual Earth 3D
    4. Revert back to your region of choice
    This works at least on the English version of XP so YMMV.

  7. Hello Ricardo,
    I had the same problem, living in Sweden.
    But I figured out how to fix it.
    In the Control Panel you find “System”.
    Somewhere in there (I don

  8. You can run VE3D in Firefox — you just have to download the IETab plugin. (
    It works just fine for me that way. You can set IETab to always load with IE’s engine instead of Gecko.
    My biggest complaint is the lack of output options, and inability to run VE3D in a true fullscreen. On a 1024×768 screen, the header eats up tons of useful space.
    Someone, quick — build a wrapper around the app that lets you run VE3D without the HTML garbage!

  9. only GE and celestia have osX support, all the others don’t care about mac users, very weak….

  10. I have already reached 2GB of disk size in Google Earth. Can I increase it above 2GB, e.g. 3GB or even 10GB?

  11. I’m more interested in how good their imagery is compared to Google Earth.
    Buildings with textures on is just a gimmick at this point. In 5+ years it’ll be more meaningful when computers can actually run an almost photorealistic city and alot of 3d has been generated for buildings around the world.
    Does it have alot of hi-res textures of countries besides USA? How about topographically mapping?

  12. Virtual Earth released an update this week to support 3D in Firefox. The much higher accuracy in the VE rendering is clearly aimed at the commerical entities wanted to use this technology.

  13. Full screen feature available? If so, how can it be activated?

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.