Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D: The comparative review

I’ve now had some time to explore Microsoft’s new 3D version of Live Local, Virtual Earth 3D (VE3D), a browser plugin for Internet Explorer 6/7 in XP/Vista. The skinny: it’s better in some regards than Google Earth, and worse in more important ways. That’s nevertheless a good showing for a first iteration of a virtual globe.

    Advantage VE3D:

  1. The Matterhorn test: It’s there by default in VE3D! (VE3D permalink.) Mountains in VE3D seem to benefit from a more detailed height mesh than Google Earth currently sports. (The Matterhorn is missing in Google Earth).


  2. Permalinks for places and views: In VE3D you can permalink any view as a URL and then send it, save it, or bookmark it. Why is that better than making a placemark in Google Earth, adding a snapshot view, and sending or saving that? Because with Google Earth you still first have to download a KML file to your desktop, where it will sit superfluously until you trash it. Google Maps lets you create permalinks, Second Life lets you create permalinks, but Google Earth doesn’t. You can of course bookmark a spot in Tagzania, which will make a KML file for you on the fly, but you still can’t save views. The ability to save a place and a view to a simple URL is a winner due to its conceptual clarity — and it can only help bring users to the application.
  3. Keyboard controls: VE3D has more keyboard controls. Look up above the horizon! Move up and down in addition to zooming in and out! Pan and rotate!
  4. XBox controller: Given that last week somebody programmed a PSP to control NASA World Wind, this is no longer as cool as it should have been, but still, it’s a nice touch. And XBox controllers are cheaper than PSPs.
  5. One unified Javascript API for both 2D and 3D maps: This is really neat; you can always rely on Microsoft to cater to developers, making it as easy as possible for them with a view to having them adopt a Microsoft technology; this in turn is meant to spur end-user adoption. An initial perusal of the code suggests that it is much easier to control the user’s view in VE3D than in Google Earth via the COM API or AppleScript. (But refreshing data without writing code is another matter. See below.)

    The VE3D javascript makes possible a much more game-like approach to 3D environments than current virtual globes. What we have here in effect are the rudimentary tools for making a browser-based first-person 3D shoot-em up — or more likely, search-em up and shop-em up; I think James Fee is right on the money in this regard.

Advantage Google Earth

  1. VE3D has larger height mesh errors: Although the Matterhorn is well-depicted, other areas that I know which I’ve checked up on for height mesh data — for example the Hunza valley (Ve3D URL) — sport extended errors:


    (I used the Road view to show off the effect.) I can assure you that this mountain doesn’t look like that. Google Earth has had the benefit of multiple iterations of feedback for its height data — often by some very dedicated users.

  2. VE3D’s place names are part of the base raster image?! Nul points, as they say in Europe — this is a real lapse that prevents VE3D from joining the major league just yet, but it is an inevitable consequence if you decide to forge your 3D map from your existing 2D product. In other words,
    VE3D = 2D Live Local data + height mesh + 3D buildings

    where the place names are rendered exactly as they are in the 2D map. In “traditional” online 2D maps, you can’t choose where north is (it’s always up, unless you hack it, as with Flash Earth) so this is not a problem, which in turn lets you gain speed by preprocessing the images, rasterizing text labels and icons. But with 3D maps you cannot assume north is up.

    How does Google solve this problem? It keeps its images, placenames, streets (and other layers) distinct, flattening a subset of these into different pre-made sets of GIF tiles created specifically for Google Maps. Google Earth meanwhile serves the streets and names as separate vector-based layers, which means that names can always be served right side up. Even street names in Google Earth will switch direction at 180 degrees.

    For Microsoft, the only solution down the line is to imitate Google Earth. There aren’t any shortcuts (that I can think of, obvs.). If currently there is time saved from sharing tile caches when switching from 2D to 3D in Live Local, then that advantage will have to go. Until this happens, there will be a lot of staring at upside down pixelated text after you zoom in and before VE3D catches up with you.

  3. End-user creativity is harder in VE3D: Creating and sharing a collection of placemarks is easier in Live Local than in Google Maps or Earth. But for anything more complicated than drawing a shape, Google Earth offers far more sophisticated tools to help the end-user create new content without having to resort to code. Want to add an overlay? A GPS track? A 3D object? Automatically refreshing content? Only with Google Earth (and SketchUp) can you avoid writing code. (This is NASA World Wind’s big drawback as well.)

    And once you’ve added that content, Google Earth induces you to share it (via Google Earth Community and 3D Warehouse). As before, this is where we see Google and Microsoft strategy diverge: Microsoft sees the end user more as a consumer that needs to be catered to, whereas Google sees the end user as an content contributor. This divergence now also shows up with how 3D buildings are dealt with: Google’s default buildings are basic gray shapes, with end users encouraged to build their own textured masterpieces and share them. VE3D’s 3D buildings, meanwhile, have been textured automatically and systematically. Which strategy will prevail? The jury is still out, but I think Google will eventually have to offer textured buildings by default. I myself have not caught the building-creation bug. But then again I’m not into property.

    One advantage of VE3D’s approach is not to be underestimated, however: It produces a 3D world in which all users share the same world state, much like World of Warcraft or Second Life. Google Earth looks different for every user, depending on what they themselves have loaded up. Here again, VE3D points to being more game-ready.

  4. Miles? VE3D’s scale legend is in miles only?! Nor is there any coordinate data to speak of, making VE3D hard to use as a geographic or scientific visualization tool. It’s much more of a main street browser than a geobrowser. The translucent green “cursor” is also much more World-of-Warcraft-like, and hence more inviting to being used in some kind of entertainment endeavor.

    Perhaps we can simply conclude that VE3D’s target audience is not the same as Google Earth’s. VE3D looks geared towards gamers, shoppers, and virtual socializers. Google Earth has a far stronger scientific pedigree, offering prosumer GIS tools. Which target audience is larger? There’s the rub. This is where Microsoft’s gambit might well pay off — is now a good time to lament the fact that far more people got excited about ogling naked people in Google Earth than the ability to follow Shackleton’s expedition?

  5. VE3D is for Windows XP/Vista and Internet Explorer 6/7 only. Companies that make websites that only work on a Win/IE combo are justly berated for willfully cutting themselves off from a whole tranche of potential customers. The whole idea of putting something into a web browser is that it just works for everyone, platform issues begone.

    Why might things be different for Microsoft? Because it owns both a platform and a browser. If a compelling service is only available on Win/IE, then we might be tempted to run IE instead of FireFox, or Win instead of Mac — and Microsoft wins. Another reason for using an ActiveX plugin for IE is that IE is already installed on most machines, while a plugin is easier to install “under the radar” in most corporate environments. (Oh, and VE3D’s EULA doesn’t restrict its use at the office).

    But what if you’re a developer thinking of using VE3D’s API? Then you’re making the same mistake as the developer making websites for Win/IE only. You’ll actually be building a PC application, though many potential users arriving at its doorstep will come with a web browser’s cross-platform expectations, and they will be turned away. That’s bad for business.

    To concretize using Ogle Earth’s user stats: 18% of visitors here are not running XP or Vista (7% use Win2000). 30% are not using IE6 or IE7 — sure, XP/FireFox users could all switch to IE, but at the same time all Win2000/IE6 users (4% of total visitors) can’t use VE3D at all. These figures are nothing to worry about if you just want to hack, but for businesses or governmental agencies they should matter.

    How does VE3D compare to SkylineGlobe? SkylineGlobe is also a plugin, but it is compatible with more flavors of Windows (Win95 onwards), with IE5.5 and now also with FireFox (kudos!). Versions for Linux and Mac are promised, says the FAQ (excellent). It also offers a free API, and the ability to render WFS, KML, WMS, Geotiff, SHP files, and live video, in addition to prebuilt 3D content. So perhaps VE3D most closely resembles SkylineGlobe, and developers should evaluate both.

  6. VE3D is slow compared to Google Earth. Sure, it’s definitely “good enough”, but when switching back to Google Earth after zooming around in VE3D, the speed advantage of a stand-alone dedicated application is evident. On thing in particular I noticed: Google Earth’s compression algorithm appears smarter. You can see VE3D catching up by loading progressively sharper tiles if you zoom in quickly, rather than go straight to the high-resolution one you want.


  1. Imagery and Internationalization: Microsoft’s catalog of high resolution imagery is not as extensive as Google Earth’s, especially for the bits that are not the US. But Microsoft does sport 45-degree bird’s-eye views, which are clearly popular. Google Earth also has better place search and (see comments) road data for more places, though Live Local shows it is stepping up to the plate by releasing a Japanese localization of its map tools.
  2. Ads: Yes, Google has them too, but never in my screenshots, as is the case with VE3D.
  3. In VE3D, when zoomed in close, switching to 2D sometimes leads to nothing at all — I would prefer zooming out automatically to the first available 2D level.
  4. Pet peeve as a mostly Mac user: If Microsoft can detect that I have the wrong operating system and browser when I try to download the VE3D ActiveX control, then it should be able to detect this when I first visit Live Local, so I am not confronted with an invite to a service I can’t use.
  5. VE3D does not at present support anti-aliasing, so flat horizons can show pixel effects.
  6. Navigating VE3D goes all weird near the poles. You can’t rotate the globe across the poles, which is a strange limitation, as I can’t think of any inherent reason the technology should make this impossible.

In sum, Google Earth easily remains the virtual globe to beat, though that was also the case with Netscape when IE first showed up. In this battle, however, Microsoft isn’t copying the main competition wholesale, but is trying a different tack, trading in speed and cross-platform compatibility to allow for what appears to be a truly first-class 3D API. If it gets the developers to climb on board, then we should soon see some very interesting applications for users with PCs. Don’t expect these applications to be scientific or educational in nature, however, but more social, search and entertainment-oriented.

[Update 20:36 UTC: Also read Brian Flood’s impressions for a more programmer-centric perspective.]

15 thoughts on “Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D: The comparative review”

  1. “Google Earth also has better place search and road data for more places”

    Actually, VE has better placename search. I can find even the smallest villages and get driving directions. Both things are not possible in GE/GMaps. (Well, for Poland at least :)

    In GE/GM I can’t use Polish diacritics and I have to add ‘Poland’ to the search query to find anything…

    And navigation in VE could be better – you need to press Ctrl or use the compass to tilt/rotate. This is where World Wind is the best – you can navigate with a mouse only.

  2. Wow, I just did some searches for hamlets in Belgium and VE had them while GE did not. So you’re right, Google is not invincible at this game.

    And using pushpins in VE to denote origins and destinations for driving directions is definitely easier than typing in addresses, misspellings and all.

  3. You touched on this Stefan, but I really think it’s interesting how each company has a different target audience. On the web side of things MS has clearly decided they are going to build a top to bottom solution for everyone. Google, at least to this point, has decided that users with their web api can create specialized web applications to meet their needs. It’s really shocking how basic Google Maps seems now when compared to VE 2D. On the 3D side of things it’s completely flipped around. Google is supplying a complete solution with GE while MS with Virtual Earth 3D is angling more towards developers to create specialized tools. In the end the best virtual globe with the one that can agragate the most data with the least amount of pain. Right now that is GE, but virtual earth 3d and ESRIs ArcExplorer have a lot of promise. Don’t be too surprised if Google has a couple of announcements this Wednesday (GIS Day of course) ArcExplorer is rumored to be released that day as well.

  4. Thanks also, Stefan.

    We see now new field for battle play of software monsters.

    Maybe this battle create way for GIS-professional.

    To me not interest Google vs ESRI. It is problem and ambitions of ESRI only :)

    This combat create new solutions by Google and MS. Also this post is great addition to your

    It is battle not GIS clients only. It is battle of solutions (web2,xml+xsl,web geoservices…)

    Large way for developers, gis specialists, managers. We wait next steps.

  5. There are more requirements to run VE3D than you considered:

    Virtual Earth 3D (Beta) requires the following:

    * A computer that’s running Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2, Microsoft Windows Server 2003, or Windows Vista

    * Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0

    * Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 or Windows Internet Explorer 7

    * 250 MB or more of hard disk space

    * A 1.0 GHz processor (2.8 GHz or faster recommended)

    * 256 MB of system memory (1 GB recommended)

    * 32 MB video card (256 MB recommended) that supports Microsoft DirectX 9, with 3D hardware acceleration enabled

    * A high speed or broadband Internet connection

    You considered the OS and browser requirements, but not the others. I suspect that many business machines (and indeed a lot of home machines with on board video) do not satisfy those other requirements. My own machine which happily runs Flight Sim, GE and countless other games refuses to run VE3D, reporting “hardware acceleration is disabled”.

    The need for .Net and Windows Imaging Components will also prevent a good number of people from running this – many machines are partially locked down so although you can install standard applications, you can not install OS components like these.

  6. Coming from the financial side, as I do, I understand the MS strategy is to be more business-focussed, more “solution-oriented” (whatever that means) than GE. From what you write, Stefan, it seems they are some way from that yet. It is early days though, I am told they have some cunning plans.

  7. Forgive me if this is an obvious question, but I am wondering: does VE have, or plan to have in the future, the capability to do tours or paths (over large areas like a whole country) as GE does? Does it allow you to make movie files of the created tour? Are these abilities far beyond what MS has in mind?



  8. how is it that when i first looked at ve i could see my house and everything around it but after downloading ve and installing it is now showing old imagery, so old that my house and road have not yet been built

  9. Regarding

    “(Oh, and VE3D’s EULA doesn’t restrict its use at the office).”

    Can someone provide a link to this supporting that claim?

  10. Hi,

    Yeah… mikrozoft’s VE is nice… but try somewhere outside of the US, UK, Europe… basically white people places… and u get crap with it.

    Google Earth has more stuff, for more places… and is for everyone… not just if u want to sit with mikrozoft products for the rest of your life.

  11. Microsoft wins hands down. The detail available is much better than anything Google can deliver. I am really surprised that Google didn’t think of Virtual Earth ahead of Microsoft. Microsoft wins for now.

  12. It”s my first time on a computer, my father just gave me this. He went out @ by a new one. I will get back to you about the performance i am going to like. Thank’s N.G.

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