I spent the entire day yesterday at Microsoft’s Thames Valley campus for the Virtual Earth partners day yesterday, and boy do they have some exciting features coming our way!
As Virtual Earth is such a young product there are few concrete details on the internet about many aspects including roadmaps, bugfixes and pricing. Thankfully yesterday we heard most of that information firsthand from the European Virtual Earth & Mappoint Webservices team.
Johannes Kebeck the European technology specialist gave a real insight into the features the development team are working on and when we might expect to see them available. To be honest I was amazed at the how quickly they plan to release the new features and improvements and was relieved that all the items we at Earthware had on our wish list are actually already either in development or on the development plan! So here is what we learnt (hopefully remembered accurately):
Version 5 of the Virtual Earth map control – Early April 07
- This will include many of the features currently available on the local.live.com maps including continuous panning of Birds Eye Views and the mini overview map.
- 3d for Firefox (windows only I presume)
- Official support for disabling pre-fetching of tiles (apparently its available now but undocumented). This could be really useful in reducing transaction costs as with pre-fetching enabled you can be pulling back 30 tiles!
- Better keyboard and mouse event handling
- Improved GeoRSS support including polygons and lines
- Fix for Birds Eye accuracy
- Lots of new birds eye locations, including a few in the UK (list to come later)
- Support for 3d controllers like the SpaceNavigator
Support For Mac’s Safari Browser â€“ Summer 07
I know a major sticking point for some developers on the Virtual Earth forum, this should be available around June time.
Mobile API / Tileserver â€“ Summer 07
I’m sure some of you have seen you can now use local live maps on your mobiles (http://wls.live.com) the good news is soon developers will be able to do this for themselves with a MS supported API (no more hacking tile servers) and a REST web service.
Rooftop accuracy geocoding â€“ 07 US
The USA will have rooftop accuracy geocoding on Virtual Earth (and I presume Mappoint webservices) this year, with Europe to hopefully follow sometime next year. I can’t see this ever being the case for the UK as the best data available from the Ordinance Survey is nowhere near accurate enough.
Polygon Searching and native GIS support
This is where dates started to get a little hazy, turning into sometime next year. There will be support for point searching within a polygon, and some kind of support for converting shape files for use in Virtual Earth.
Better Custom Image Overlays
Those of you who have played with MapCruncher to produce your own map image overlays will be glad to hear the development team are working on a way to overlay the map roads on top of your custom map overlays. Again there was no real timeframe for this but not this year.
This was a feature I was really not expecting, but was on Earthware’s wish list since a client recently requested it. This will give details about the provider and date of the map satellite imagery. This will be very useful for various applications and even for estimating when the next updates are likely to be for a particular area. Again this has no real timeframe.
Street side views
If you thought birds eye views were great this will blow you away. Microsoft are working on taking shots actually from a street point of view using a specially equipped van with 8 cameras on. They have even working with helmet mounted cameras and cyclists! The plan is to do this for some major US and European cities (apparently including major parts of London). The only problem with this at the moment is a privacy issue, you really can see people, signs, number plates etc. Believe it or not Microsoft are working on removing all these privacy issues from the imagery. You can see a proof of concept that Microsoft worked on here http://preview.local.live.com/.
Improved 3d Model Textures
Those of you who have seen the 3d models (especially in America) in Virtual Earth 3d will have noticed the textures used are not very high quality. Microsoft are working at using textures from the birds eye views to improve this. The demo they showed comparing the new and old textures was brilliant, almost photo realistic
Support for a 3d Model Community
One of the advantages Google Earth still has over virtual earth is that anyone can create and show 3d models in Google Earth, in fact Google launched a 3d Warehouse for people to submit their models. Johannes suggest Microsoft are going to emulate this possibly also bringing out a 3d tool along the lines of Sketchup. It was suggested that some access at least to adding your own 3d models will be available 4th quarter this year.
Licensing for use of imagery outside of Virtual Earth
Some of the later sessions from the marketing team also mentioned that Microsoft are negotiating with their mapping providers to come up with a licensing model for using Virtual Earth imagary outside of Virtual Earth, for example in marketing material. This is another area where Google Earth still has an edge as you commercial license agreements are available for using Google Earth imagery and video for a wide range of commercial applications.
As you can see Microsoft are really taking Virtual Earth seriously and have some great development plans. If they continue to deliver these kinds of exclusive features at the rate they are currently I can’t see Google Earth, or any other interactive mapping provider catching up for a long while. It was great to finally get some questions answered and assumptions confirmed by the team and we can only thank them for inviting us to a really useful day of events, and even a free mug .