Microsoft Buys Vexcel Corporation

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Welcome to GISWeekly! Last week Microsoft bought Vexcel Corporation, a company well known to the geospatial community as a leader in photogrammetry, remote sensing and imagery. This acquisition, which will become a subsidiary of Microsoft, was made to complement and enhance the Microsoft Virtual Earth vision. Read about this acquisition in this week's Industry News.

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Industry News
Microsoft Buys Vexcel Corporation
by Susan Smith

Last week Microsoft bought Vexcel Corporation, a company well known to the geospatial community as a leader in photogrammetry, remote sensing and imagery. This acquisition, which will become a subsidiary of Microsoft, was made to complement and enhance the Microsoft Virtual Earth vision.

The announcement of the acquisition was made at ASPRS, a first time event for Microsoft, but they will probably be at every one from now on, according to Microsoft Virtual Earth Business Unit spokesmen. With this acquisition and the previous acquisition of GeoTango, Microsoft is clearly moving into the geospatial world.

Tom Bailey, director of marketing, Microsoft Virtual Earth Business Unit and Steven Lawler, general manager of the Virtual Earth Business Unit and John Curlander, former CEO of Vexcel Corporation spoke about the Vexcel acquisition and what it means to Microsoft.

Steven Lawler said that John Curlander and the Vexcel team will join the Virtual Earth Business Unit team. In addition to the acquisition, Microsoft announced the new Ultra-Cam X digital camera and the UltraMap Server from the former Vexcel.

Microsoft Virtual Earth: A Destination and a Platform

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Lawler explained the Virtual Earth vision: Virtual Earth "is really about creating a immersive real world framework," he said. "It establishes a geospatial type context for all types of information." He talked about how people were frustrated with trying to find information on the internet before search came along. "What's still lacking is the ability to navigate and explore for information in an intuitive way. Virtual Earth is about creating a digital real world framework that is just like the real world you navigate every day. There are many different pieces of that - when we look at a digital world we see a highly visual immersive place that people can recognize and understand what it's like there. They can navigate from references and hints of information, they can understand that where they are trying to get to and what they're trying to find."

Lawler said that in order to do that, Microsoft needs a lot of rich 2D imagery and eventually they will need a 3D place. Visuals are core to Virtual Earth. Secondly, he said they want to make sure information is readily accessible, i.e., what you're looking for can easily be found. "Additionally we want your content to come in and out of this open platform, so that you can apply your content in application logic or you can bring your business content or government content in on the back end. We want a contributing community of participants so we want the content to evolve, and we want it to take the form of people's opinions who will participate to create this virtual earth. We want this to be both a destination and a platform." The Windows Live Local destination site is set up so you can do all kinds of local search and mapping functionality, but they also want the platform for government and business to use technology to incorporate their data. For the consumer, the Virtual Earth team wants the platform to be "highly contextual and relevant."

Enter Vexcel

With this much said, it is no wonder that Vexcel was approached to provide the remote sensing/imagery piece of the puzzle. Key reasons for acquiring Vexcel include:
  • the people
  • credibility in the government sector
  • assets
  • experience with visuals - processing, collection, and display
Vexcel has an incredibly talented group of people, and the company has a close alignment with the Virtual Earth vision and strategy surrounding geospatial knowledge. The fact that Vexcel has a lot of credibility and history in the government sector, to whom they've been delivering solutions for a long time, opens up an entirely new market for Microsoft's Virtual Earth Business Unit. Vexcel also has an important set of assets in the form of expertise in the areas of infrerometry and radar. Vexcel's experience with imagery encompasses the whole gamut of processes - processing, acquiring, collection, and display. They also have developed the Ultra-Cam digital camera which will interestingly place Microsoft in the hardware market.

John Curlander, former CEO of Vexcel Corporation and now general manager for the Virtual Earth Business Unit at Microsoft, noted that this might seem like a "strange marriage" between Microsoft and Vexcel, as Vexcel is a mapping and remote sensing company with customers in the government space and Microsoft is a consumer software company. However, the blending of these two companies will ultimately benefit both the government and the consumer space with enhanced visual assets and content.

First introduced in 2004, the Ultra-Cam digital camera technology has jumped in functionality into a whole new realm of automation with new demands. "That means that once we get into the digital realm end-to-end, then we can start looking at the technologies that are necessary to completely automate the production from collection all the way to a finished map product," explained Curlander. "That sort of automation is going to be core to the success of Virtual Earth. We need to build out huge databases to support the content that we planned for Virtual Earth. The camera and the fully automated workflow for those finished products is a core technology Microsoft needs and values."

The latest version of the Ultra-Cam can collect on the order of four gigabits per second of data, very high overlap data, very high dynamic range and the quality of the product to start making the automation possible. "The new camera is the largest camera in terms of megapixels: it has 260 megapixels and four spectral bands to operate in so it has a remote sensing capability, over 14,000 cross track elements so we can fly much higher and have a very wide swath and we can go down to 1 inch resolution with triple redundant stereo imaging. We can get very high resolution and full stereo quality so we can construct the geometry with the stereo," Curlander said.

Curlander pointed out that 3-4 gigibits of data per second adds up to a lot of data in a short time. Vexcel also introduced at ASPRS their fully automated workflow which includes everything from cataloguing to archiving plus the whole processing chain, i.e., orienting all the images, the aerial triangulation, creation of the digital elevation model, and the full ortho-mosaic product. This system is called the UltraMap System with the UltraMap Server, which is the catalog/archive piece. The UltraMap worksuite is the full processor. This is the core technology Vexcel will employ to build out Virtual Earth for Microsoft.

What does this mean for the industry? Curlander believes that by creating the core technology and infrastructure for the current industry for mapping and photogrammetry and remote sensing, the industry can "work with us" to build out these databases. The impact of the local search and geodata for the mapping and remote sensing industry is expected to be huge. Vexcel (or the Virtual Earth Business Unit now) is in the process of building out a bigger partnership network for collectors, processors and value-added developers with not only airborne but spaceborne operators such as DigitalGlobe, SpotImage and GeoEye. They also want to build a partner network worldwide with the flyers. Most importantly, said Curlander, "Once we create these databases and build these effective GIS layers, we need to work with the people who can build the applications on top of it, who can make it interesting to consumers, in addition to what we're doing in the local search."

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