Microsoft Corp., following the lead of Google Maps, this week introduced a beta version of an online local search and mapping service that combines aerial imagery with driving directions and other local search tools.

Windows Live Local, at http://local.live.com, is powered by Microsoft’s Virtual Earth mapping and location platform and features a detailed, 45-degree bird’s-eye view of major U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Las Vegas, Microsoft announced.

“We believe Windows Live Local sets a new standard for what people can do with maps, directions and local search,” said Christopher Payne, corporate vice president of MSN Search at Microsoft. “The combination of immersive aerial imagery, customizable map annotations, innovative driving directions and the ability to share local search information with others gives users an incredibly powerful and easy way to find what they want and get where they want to go.”

Covering about 25 percent of the U.S. by population, the bird’s-eye images were captured by Pictometry International Corp. via low-flying airplanes and integrated with road and satellite maps to simulate 360-degree panoramas that can be viewed from four compass directions, the company reported.

On-screen navigational tools and preview tiles enable navigation between directional views or zooming in closer to a destination.

“Now people will be able to experience what it’s like to be there, whether they are evaluating a new house to buy, choosing the exact location to meet someone, or just taking a virtual vacation. Over the next couple of years, Microsoft plans to continuously update bird’s-eye, aerial, and road map data and imagery as well as local listings and information,” according to the announcement.

Live Local users will be able to point to anyplace on the map that interests them and immediately calculate directions to it, Microsoft announced. “Now, even if the user doesn’t know the address or name of a place – such as a park, shopping mall, parking garage or other spot that is hard to identify by address or name – he or she can simply point, click and get directions to that location.”

Other features of the newly launched site include identification of construction areas along a specific route, several print options, and thumbnail pictures of each turn in the route. Microsoft noted that there is also an updated version of Microsoft Location Finder in Windows Live Local to assist users in identifying their current location as a starting point to their search. The degree of accuracy is usually within a few hundred feet of a user’s actual location, the company reported.

Users also can customize their maps by adding user-created “Pushpins,” which can include personalized notes such as a meeting time or building office number for a scheduled meeting or appointment. “Pushpins can be used to create itineraries for a set of activities and in all cases can be easily shared with others through e-mail, Web logs, MSN Spaces or instant messages sent with MSN Messenger,” Microsoft announced.

Live Local also invites users to comment on the new site at a Microsoft discussion board.

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