Geography 2.0: Virtual Globes

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Will Microsoft have a Google Earth?

So, will Microsoft launch something that looks like Google Earth? As seen in the preview screenshots for Flight Simulator X, Microsoft has the ingredients in place to do it. PC Magazine has a review of the game, which is expected to be released later this year. Further, through their agreement with Orbimage (now GeoEye), Microsoft can play with enough imagery to go head-to-head with the other guys. Of course, their job announcements are telling too. This announcement seeks a program manager to lead a project integrating their flight simulator engine with Virtual Earth (now Windows Live Local) and the Street and Trips product.

Virtual globes, mapping and GIS provide a natural avenue to funnel video game technology onto the internet. While Keyhole and the Google Earth guys have a fine product, I wonder if they can compete down-the-line with full-blown video game development teams like Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and Square Enix. Google's plan undoubtedly will be to use their ability to access and serve data, perform location-based search, and combine that with improvements in visualization to stay ahead of competitors. Google also has the infrastructure provided by KML --- which is probably the most-significant innovation of Google Earth. Companies wishing to compete will need to carefully consider KML's implications and potential. Otherwise, from my perspective, Google Earth added a lot of wonderful data and the beginnings of some spatial queries, but the visualization components seem pretty much the same since I first downloaded Keyhole Earthviewer in 2003. Think Google might buy a game company?

Google's aspirations for Google Earth will probably be made clear over the next several months. Some things to look for include positioning of advertisements on Google Earth, whether their in-car navigation prototype progresses and becomes a financial asset, the nature of the new controls to visualize time-stamped data, and mashups commercial licensing clarification. I'll also be monitoring how Google guides the evolution of KML and uses search abilities to leverage such data. We may gain some further insight into the financial models and strategies of internet mapping at the June 2006 Where 2.0 Conference. The conference is being organized to answer "Where's the Value".

As for as Microsoft, given their Windows Live Local experiments and current capabilities, the question is when will they launch a virtual globe. I know very little about Microsoft, but they do seem to like previewing their software at places like the Consumer Electronics Show. Since there was no preview a few weeks ago at CES, that may be a signal that any new virtual globe is far from ready. Of course, Bill Gates may have some tricks up his sleave--one would be to hardwire their virtual globe into Windows Vista or Internet Explorer. Just as a side note, I would hope they would package their internet-based virtual globe with XBOX 360. That's one way to get me to buy one of those contraptions.

If the Where 2.0 Conference does address virtual globes, one conclusion should be that flying around an Earth-scale dataset has limited use. To make decisions that affect day-to-day decisions, users need controls that allow them to easily connect to and explore local areas. So far, my strongest cognitive connection to virtual globes has been in locations where I have been able to obtain a street level view and then explore the immediate vicinity. For instance, the "Views" in my Chile Geysers KML allow me to view a scene from the same position where I originally took a photograph. Even in this best case, the controls still are analagous to a flying bird--at a time when I would like to land.

We'll see how things develop.