27 November 2006 – Two Internet giants have embarked on a race to become the first 3D cartographers of the world. The result is expected to be an online map that allows web surfers to land in a city from the sky, travel its streets and see its hotels, shops and attractions without having to visit in person.
The rival schemes, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, are based on Google Earth, the search engine’s existing 2D photographic map of the world, and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, a similar system. In a new push, Microsoft last month launched Virtual Earth 3D, which has detailed three-dimensional replicas of the centres of 15 US cities, including New York and Los Angeles.
Both services rely on detailed satellite images, which enable users to zoom in from 300km in space to pictures of the roof of their own home or of elephants roaming the African plains.
Microsoft is now commissioning photographers to take millions of pictures of urban landscapes from planes, vans and motorbikes. The images are patched together using digital imaging software to create 3D buildings that users can enter, walk past or fly by.
Google is taking the cheaper option of inviting users to create its virtual cities. In March, the company bought SketchUp, an Internet tool that lets people create their own 3D images of buildings. It plans to add the best of these to Google Earth this year.
As the rival schemes develop, buildings will become interactive, enabling users to virtually enter them, obtain information, buy goods inside and talk to other cyber visitors. Eventually, landscapes could be included.
The move may bring about a transformation in how people use the Internet. Instead of relying on traditional search engines, in which they enter words into boxes on screen, users would be able to navigate the world using a virtual replica.
They could, for example, “walk” the streets of New York online or choose items from a supermarket aisle from their living room while gossiping with fellow shoppers about the prices. Internet analyst Greg Sterling said: “A seed is being planted that could grow into a range of things that will be very interesting.”