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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Transforming the world of online maps
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

Maps have been helping us get from A to B for hundreds of years, but their 2D, "flat" nature is not always helpful in the "real" 3D world. Online maps have also had this problem, but now this seems be changing.

A map and a compass
It can be hard to visualise the real 3D world from a traditional map
For centuries map-makers have boiled miles down to millimetres, and balanced continents on their fingertips.

But for all the charm of their exotic place names, maps can drive you nuts with their small print and giant formats.

Online, it has not been much better. For all their promise, pixels have looked much the same as paper.

But online maps are starting to come into their own. Both Google and Microsoft have launched 3D maps, giving you the up and down as well as the right and left.

Microsoft 's general manager of Virtual Earth, Stephen Lawler says: "We think it is a shift in the way people will interface with their computer, so we want that immersive environment to be as real as possible and as high quality as possible.

Rather than using satellite pictures, Microsoft has been dispatching aircraft to fly over the world's cities
"Right now you have a great sense of everything around you. If I gave you a camera to capture this area in 2D, it would be very difficult for you to capture the essence of the environment we're in.

"3D gives you the fluidity for navigation, to fly through the environment as well as the more natural sense that you are familiar with."

Aerial modelling

In the movies, 3D mock ups are done by hand, "pixel pushing" according to those lumbered with the job, but Microsoft's Virtual Earth is rendered automatically, through processing the photographic data the company collects.

Microsoft's Virtual Earth showing buildings in 3D
3D maps allow people to see what the area is like from the ground
The textured look of its 3D is the result of the 4in (10cm) photographic resolution it is getting.

Rather than using satellite pictures, Microsoft has been dispatching aircraft to fly over the world's cities. They even bought up the Graz-based Austrian company which designed the unique camera system to make these 3D renditions. The company's aim: to drive film out of its last hide-out.

Director of Microsoft Photogrammetry, Dr. Franz Leberl says: "The aerial mapping field is one of the few domains where film was still relevant. In other areas film has long been documented to be dead, so I think with this camera we are contributing also to doing away with film in the aerial mapping.

"When you look at an urban scene and the sun is shining you've often very bright areas, metal roofs for example or umbrellas in a nice market square, right next to pitch black shadow. It is a real challenge that film cannot meet to resolve both the detail in the shadow and the detail in the bright.

"If you have no resolution, you have no features, you cannot model in 3D because you don't see anything."

'Virtual' opportunities

One of the first rules of Empire, is that if you want to lay claim to a piece of land, then get your cartographers to work and map it. It is why those conquistadores of cyber-space, Google and Microsoft, are so keen to get prior digital claim on the space we inhabit, by mapping it.

Microsoft's Virtual Earth showing a building with the Ford logo on its roof
Advertisers can use the 3D maps to promote their products
Microsoft gave us the software to better exploit our PCs, Google gifted us the search engine to navigate the web. Now both of them are moving into the real world to exploit its potential.

Microsoft's Virtual Earth, for example, not only allows you to zoom like a super-hero through the metropolis, but there seems also to be plenty of opportunities for advertising.

For a fee, companies can also use the platform to enhance their websites. An estate agent could save you a lot of leg-work by revealing the lie of the land around that house or apartment you like the sound of.

The headlong scramble to digitalise the planet is not without controversy.

On Google Earth sensitive features, such as military bases and nuclear power stations, have been blurred out as an anti-terrorism measure. Fair enough, but maps are also political.

Soon both Microsoft and Google may have to wrestle with some of the censorship and personal privacy issues that may come with such a potentially intrusive technology.

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