The fascinating Data Mining blog reports that Microsoft has launched a mapping service to compete with Google Earth. I have played with Google Earth; it integrates Google Maps' satellite images with a cute interface that allows you to fly around on the globe and zoom in and out, from orbiter altitude to the tops of buildings. You can also mark locations of interest and upload your marks so that others can access them. But Google Earth's images are ultimately the flat, two-dimensional projections of satellite photographs. According to Data Mining, Microsoft's service includes 3-D models of locations (I'm not sure how complete the 3-D models are; they may be limited to just certain cities at this point). Data Mining has a post with screenshots of some of the models. Microsoft apparently plans to generate revenue by selling advertising space on billboards in this virtual world!
In Neil Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, the main character (the aptly named Hiro Protagonist), is given an elaborate piece of software called "Earth" that he uses in his quest to save the world from a narcissitic zillionaire's nefarious plot to reprogram the human brain. Hiro's "Earth" program looks on the surface very much like Microsoft's Virtual Earth - Hiro can spin the globe, swoop down on a model of any location he wishes, zoom from place to place just by moving a virtual overhead camera.
The difference is that Hiro's "Earth" incorporates real-time data from all over the internet - news footage, personal photographs, written reporting - to provide a view that it is up-to-date as information permits of whatever is happening at any spot on the globe. So when Hiro wants to pinpoint the location of "The Raft," the zillionaire's giant floating city, which he knows is somewhere off the California coast, all he has to do is train his "Earth" program on the western pacific and find The Raft on the virtual model. He can see news helicopters buzzing around it so he knows that the information is fairly up-to date, likely based on video footage transmitted from the helicopters directly to the internet, accessed and integrated by the "Earth" program. He can compute The Raft's heading and speed, and use that information to choose which port he should fly to so that he can meet The Raft and board it.
I wonder whether these mapping programs will ever approach the integrated power of Hiro's "Earth" program. That could be incredibly useful. But it would also carry a great potential for abuse, whether by government agencies or by private organizations bent on disrupting the peace of others.