Microsoft's new MSN Virtual Earth site can look both sharp and blurry at the same time. This new, free service cleverly combines aerial images of buildings with business details extracted from phone directories to let people zoom around neighborhoods across the United States -- but many of those images are fuzzy, black-and-white photos that, in some cases, appear to predate the existence of the Web itself.
Virtual Earth (virtualearth.msn.com) works like the five-month-old Google Maps, but with a few extra features. Its Scratch Pad, for example, can hold up to five addresses, allowing you to revisit them without retyping their addresses or to share views of those spots in an e-mail or a blog.
Microsoft's Locate Me software tries to figure out where your computer is by reading Wi-Fi wireless signals available in your area. It will present local information mapped in Virtual Earth, sparing you from trying to figure out the geography of a strange city. Locate Me requires installing a separate Windows program, unlike the rest of the Virtual Earth service, which runs entirely in a Web browser.
That is a key difference between Microsoft's new service and the more advanced Google Earth released last month. Google Earth requires users to install a separate program to explore satellite photos on a three-dimensional view of the world from various angles.
For now, Virtual Earth has only top-down views. But in the fall it will add 45-degree side views of buildings based on pictures taken from airplanes in 15 areas, including the Washington region.
One major weakness in this early release is that much of Virtual Earth's imagery appears old and some consists of blurry black-and-white photos. When you zoom in on areas of the District that have changed in the past year, don't be surprised to see buildings that have been torn down. Scroll out to the suburbs and you may see pictures that appear to be 10 years old. On the plus side, Microsoft has integrated licensed business data from phone books to improve the accuracy of information it displays about dry cleaners, golf courses and other places. Virtual Earth superimposes labels for street names and landmarks on top of its satellite imagery, helping orient you more quickly (Google added a similar view to Google Maps two weeks ago).
For now, Virtual Earth shows only a few sponsored business links below its regular search results. Tom Bailey, director of marketing for Microsoft mapping services, said more advertising is planned.
Like Google Maps, Virtual Earth is to open to developers who want to use the resource on their Web sites, which could to lead to wide use of the services in such industries as real estate and travel.
Web Video Views Soar With Shuttle
The Internet set another record for online video Tuesday when NASA reported that about 433,000 people simultaneously watched its video webcast of the space shuttle launch. The audience nearly quadrupled NASA's previous record set on July 4, when 118,000 people watched NASA's webcast of the encounter between the Deep Impact space probe and a comet.
Google Gets Personal
Google, the site formerly known as a search engine, is looking more and more like Yahoo. Consider the touches Google added last week to its personal home-page option, which previously was limited to a measly few headlines and weather forecasts. Now people can add personal bookmarks and news feeds from any site on the Web that offers RSS ("Really Simple Syndication") links. Google has maintained its streamlined look here, making its enhanced personal page a strong candidate for people to adopt.
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