June 06, 2005
MSN Virtual Earth Offers Up Microsoft's New Local Search Strategy
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Message from the Editor -

Welcome to GISWeekly! Last week I saw a preview of “live code” of Microsoft's MSN Virtual Earth, which will ultimately replace the MSN Maps and Directions website. According to Mark Law, lead product manager for the MapPoint business unit, MSN Virtual Earth began with a team of people who posed the question, what do we really want to do with location on the internet in terms of a web-based location site? Read about their resulting strategy in this week's Industry News.

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Susan Smith, Managing Editor

Industry News

MSN Virtual Earth Offers Up Microsoft's New Local Search Strategy

By Susan Smith

Last week I saw a preview of “live code” of Microsoft's MSN Virtual Earth, which will ultimately replace the MSN Maps and Directions website. According to Mark Law, lead product manager for the MapPoint business unit, MSN Virtual Earth began with a team of people who posed the question, what do we really want to do with location on the internet in terms of a web-based location site? “A group of us got together with executive sponsorship and submitted a paper on the concept we had on MSN Virtual Earth, which is the idea of a social networking community site on the internet based on location rather than on a specific subject,” explained Law.

“Everything can be located or you can locate a reference yourself and using location. We have created this immersive and discoverable environment which we call MSN Virtual Earth. Bill [Gates] liked it so much in February he said go ahead with it. We've been coding since mid-January - early February.”

What was presented to me was live code, where a whole map looks like it's bleeding off the screen. The whole focus is on the geography and the headers and banners are all gone. The whole goal is to create an immersive map geographical earth experience. “One of the things that we've also done is improved our map style so that all the labeling you see in side the mapping actually shows up within the actual route, the aliasing is actually showing up inside the street networks,” Law noted. “We've completely perfected our map view look and feel and we've also added navigational features such as zoom in and zoom out. We've added drag capabilities, also we've also noticed that a
lot of people get themselves lost after they've dragged around, so we implemented this game panning button used by gaming people. This enables people to navigate very easily around the map by moving that gaming pan.”

Microsoft just happens to own TerraServer, which serves up satellite imagery, so TerraServer is used to search for an address using aerial photography. The TerraServer group has now joined the MapPoint business unit, bringing the mapping search component and satellite imagery together in one place.

“I'm using the scrolling wheel of my mouse and am able to zoom in on that aerial photography down to a fairly decent resolution while maintaining the location of the address,” remarked Law. “A lot of people don't look at their rooftops as a means to recognize where they are and as they've scrolled around have got themselves a little lost, because one neighborhood can look like another without the reference points labeled here. We've implemented this hybrid view, which is a complete overlay of the streets and area network on top of the map, where you can actually see all the streets are labeled, and as you scroll in you can see that the street networks show up on top of
the map network. So now my parents won't get lost just looking at the satellite photo.”

This 'hybrid view' is a unique proposition Microsoft will go live with in this first release. On the Scratch Pad users can search for an address and then search for a second address. The Scratch Pad allows you to maintain both addresses in it.

Another great feature is the local search. If you know, for example, you're coming to 1 Main Street, Seattle, and you want to stay at a nearby hotel, you can enter hotels and submit it to the current map view. It will retrieve only the hotels located in that nearby area. Instead of a local search where you search for hotels in Seattle and you'll get all hotels in Seattle, in this case it's a location pivot search where it will locate it relevant to that number on the map view.

There is an automatic search refresh (should you want to stay near another community). The map view shows the itinerary on the right hand side of the address where you are going to stay, some information about restaurants you might want to look at, and any entertainment also. The searches that you've done have been stacked and are maintained without getting lost.

“We can take that Scratch Pad and email it to everybody and say 'here's where I'm staying, here's the restaurant we should meet at,'” said Law. “But I can also blog it and hit the blog button - it will take me to My Spaces in MSN. This is a new area Microsoft launched two months ago which 7 million plus people have already come to. People can come there and get a full list of what you have identified to look at, like restaurants, etc.”

In the second release, which will come 90 days after the summer release, MapPoint will implement the Pictometry imagery that Microsoft has licensed for the next five years exclusively for MSN Virtual Earth. It allows you to look at the Earth on 45 degree angles, and because of the way they've captured it obliquely, this imagery is rotational in four compassed directions, presenting aerial photographs in a 3D-like manner. As a result, Pictometry's image databases of cities, counties, and states provide a more information-rich source of visual data, and at a significant cost savings compared to computer modeling systems of municipalities.

The second or third release of MSN Virtual Earth will be opened up to add content, to include 'the global access to local knowledge.' No single company can capture everything about a neighborhood at the local level.

“Most of the local knowledge, restaurants, bike paths, resides in you and me,” said Law. “The only way we can capture it is to enable you to contribute to it. You will be able to share social information with your friends. You can share information, dog walking areas, etc. for public consumption. People can put layers of content in, put business listings, etc. and do it real time. MSN Virtual Earth will turn into a daily release or even an hourly release, with content which will flow in and out of it.

“After this release we will create the private MSN Virtual Earth where you can share only the first set of information only with the people you want to see it.”

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