Microsoft and Google Vie for Virtual World Domination

Each acquires a company, hoping to add a new dimension to Internet mapping and searching

ILLUSTRATION: LARRY JOST

The headline-making rivalry in the Internet space today is between Microsoft Corp. and search engine champ Google Inc., two companies that have long demonstrated an equal willingness to spend money in pursuit of their aims. Now each of the rivals has made an acquisition that may point to the next big thing in the evolution of the Internet—the use of imagery, including photos taken from space, to give people browsing the Web instant access to near-perfect virtual representations of just about any spot on Earth.

Both companies are seeking to dominate what’s called in the jargon of the trade ”local search”—electronic versions of the kind of information found in local telephone directories. It’s a market that generated more than US $3 billion last year and could reach $13 billion by 2010, says The Kelsey Group, a media research firm based in Princeton, N.J. Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and Google’s Google Earth already give computer users the ability to enter the name of a city or a street address and watch as a photo giving a bird’s-eye view of the desired location appears on the screen. But your view is still limited mostly to the tops of buildings.

With Microsoft’s acquisition of Vexcel Corp. and Google’s of @Last Software, both in Boulder, Colo., the two competitors want to provide photos and highly realistic computer-generated simulations to give a heretofore unattainable sense of where, say, an amusement park is situated in relation to a hotel—and not just from above, but from the ground, as if you were right there. These acquisitions bring the rivals closer to achieving their ambitions of creating virtual worlds resembling the ones in video games but depending entirely on accurate topographical data generated from cameras and satellites.

What do users gain from these topographic representations? William B. Gail, vice president of mapping and photogrammetric solutions at Vexcel, offers this example of what services the company plans to offer in the next couple of years: ”If you’re going to go shopping and you have a list of stores in, say, midtown Manhattan, it would be a lot different if you could actually visualize where you’re going to be.” Through these sites, he says, ”You’ll be able to walk down the street, look in the storefronts, and see what’s there. If you’re planning to make restaurant reservations, you can virtually go inside a restaurant, sit at each of the tables, and select the one with the best view.”

Some form of this application is going to be available within the next two years, Gail predicts. And soon after, access to these ever-more-realistic virtual worlds will become part of every computer application. Electronic schedulers, for example, will present three-dimensional maps representing the locations of appointments, and in-car navigation systems will use this same capability to give drivers more information about the lay of the land. Traditionally, images of the Earth taken from planes and satellites have been used only for weather forecasting, land surveying, climate change research, and for strategic military applications.

The acquisition of Vexcel, which was finalized on 4 May, greatly enhances Microsoft’s ability to make precise measurements of the distances between landmarks appearing in 2â''D images and to store and process vast amounts of image data. The hardware and software Vexcel produces for remote sensing and aerial mapping, such as the UltraCamD, an 86-megapixel large-format digital aerial camera, are recognized as some of the best in the mapping services industry.

Days before Microsoft disclosed its plan to purchase Vexcel, Google announced that it was acquiring @Last, best known for its SketchUp 3-D design software. Google, already confident that it can accurately account for the distances between landmarks in its local search database, got in SketchUp a tool that makes it much easier to translate this data to 3-D models. The software also makes it easy to add details that make the models appear more realistic—the ultimate aim of local search.

A cofounder of @Last, Brad Schell, says his company ”brings with it the software and the engineering know-how that allow users to build whatever they dream up in three dimensions and then gives us the ability to overlay these designs on the virtual world being created [in Google Earth].”

Vexcel and @Last are but two of a cluster of small companies that have sprung up in the Boulder area—a major center of earth sciences, earth sensing, and computer modeling—to meet the needs of U.S. government scientists and aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, and Raytheon.

Another small Colorado company, Space Imaging Inc., in Thornton, was recently acquired by Orbimage Holdings Inc., of Dulles, Va., to form GeoEye, now the world’s leading provider of images taken from space. (That puts GeoEye ahead of SPOT, which is co-owned by the French aerospace and mapping agencies, the Alcatel group, the Belgian government, the Swedish Space Corporation, and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, or EADS.) Space Imaging and DigitalGlobe, in neighboring Longmont, Colo., provide a lot of what is seen on Virtual Earth and Google Earth, says Gail.

”There are a lot of start-ups here in Boulder—whether it be software, biotech, and, of course, satellite imaging companies,” says @Last’s Schell. ”I’ve heard some folks describe it as the Silicon Valley of the Rockies.” Susan Graf, a spokesperson for Boulder’s Chamber of Commerce, says the city ”is ranked as one of the best places to live by Forbes and Money magazines, and we have a wealth of well-educated people to work in the industry.”

An interesting wrinkle in the virtual worlds that Microsoft and Google are seeking to conjure up is that they will likely be populated in part with images contributed by consumers themselves, à la Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. According to an internal Microsoft document, all it would take to post images of your hometown is a cellphone with a camera. ”Imagine hundreds of millions of users clicking photos and uploading them to create a very current virtual world spreading from New York City to villages in Botswana,” the document says.

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