Microsoft Corp. today announced a new three-dimensional online mapping interface that is part of its Live Search offering.

Live Search users who type a query into the search bar and click on the “maps” tab will see their search results in a map context that offers the option to explore the mapped area using two-dimensional views, either aerial or bird’s-eye, or three-dimensional models with Virtual Earth 3D.

The new technology compiles photographic images of cities and terrain to generate textured, photorealistic 3-D models, Microsoft announced.

“By helping people visualize information in far more useful and intuitive ways, Virtual Earth 3D takes search to an entirely new level,” said Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, in a statement. “The immersive 3-D experience provides a more powerful and engaging interface that delivers better experiences not only for consumers, but also for developers and advertisers.”

Competitor Google has also launched 3-D imagery and rendering tools, and imagery can be viewed through its Google Earth application.

The three-dimensional models are now available for 15 U.S. cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Fort Worth.

“Terrain imagery in 3-D is available globally, and Microsoft expects to offer 3-D imagery in an ever expanding set of cities,” the company announced. Other features provided by Live Search include access to current traffic information in some U.S. cities, and access to business listings and people listings.

Steve Berkowitz, senior vice president of the Online Services Group at Microsoft, said in a statement, “Local search is one of the fastest-growing categories online today, and adding features like 3-D will only help move the category further ahead and help Windows Live attract more customers and advertisers.”

Companies can purchase advertisements within the Virtual Earth 3D space. “Similar to billboards on the side of roads, virtual billboards will be available throughout Live Search in the 3-D view,” the company announced.

The ads available within the Virtual Earth 3D experience are created using a combination of technologies from Virtual Earth, Massive Inc. technology, and the advertising platform from Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions.

Developers can use the Virtual Earth 3D application programming interface to build search capabilities into their own applications and Web sites. “This and other APIs for Live Search are offered at no cost to developers, with the option to acquire additional support and other benefits through a service-level agreement with Microsoft,” according to the announcement.

APIs, or application programming interfaces, can facilitate the creation of new software applications by providing the building blocks. Information about the Virtual Earth API is available online at http://dev.live.com/virtualearth.

Some Windows Live services launched in an early beta phase on Nov. 1, 2005 — these and future beta updates can be found at http://ideas.live.com, the company noted.

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