Agencies face new, 3-D era of geospatial information

Agencies at all levels of government, many of which have long relied on two-dimensional geospatial platforms, now have the opportunity to exploit a 3-D immersive mapping interface to manage and visualize information.

Microsoft Corp. yesterday afternoon announced the availability of Virtual Earth 3D, an upgrade of the online map and data service that compiles photographic images of cities and terrain to generate texturized, photorealisitc 3-D models with engineering-level accuracy.

The new online geospatial visualization tool is accurate to within a few meters, Microsoft technologies said as they demonstrated the technology in a briefing yesterday. The Web service increases the value of geospatial information for use by federal civilian, military and intelligence agencies, partly by providing photorealistic renderings of buildings and other urban sites.

For example, Microsoft executives said, agencies could use the Virtual Earth platform as a means to assemble knowledge about all infrastructure, institutions and government assets that might come into play in a terrorist incident. First-responder commanders potentially would be able to analyze the lines of sight of a terrorist group holed up in a skyscraper, for example, and coordinate their deployment of response units and medical support.

In a similar vein, homeland security agencies seeking to prepare for biological or chemical incidents could use the Virtual Earth platform to help calculate the dispersion of plumes of airborne toxic materials.

The Microsoft technologists said the company has gathered its photographic imagery, which displays buildings from a 45-degree angle, partly from public sources and partly from photos taken during flights over specific cities. Virtual Earth now contains highly detailed 3-D model for 15 cities nationwide.

The platform includes 3-D terrain information worldwide, and Microsoft plans to offer 3-D imagery in a continually expanding inventory of cities and countries. The platform already offers street level data for some 70 countries, Microsoft officials said.

The officials said the Virtual Earth service also could be used to combine images provided by camera phones into pictures of buildings, for example, taken from multiple points of view.

The company seeks to expand the ability to build geospatial apps beyond the existing community of some 100,000 geospatial information systems experts worldwide to a multimillion-member group of computer users, the Microsoft executives said. The Virtual Earth Service is designed to allow government IT professionals and program officials to link their existing data to the geospatial platform.

For civilian agencies, the improved version of Virtual Earth fosters better management of public lands, planning for school and road construction, and oversight of environmental trends, the executives said. Microsoft now considers data in Virtual Earth that is up to two years old to be 'current,' and the company expects to reduce that time frame progressively to a year, six months and three months to achieve increasingly accurate data.

Microsoft emphasizes that Virtual Earth users can use it to extend existing investments in GIS, such as those from the Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, Calif., and MapInfo Corp. of Troy, N.Y., and export data such as points, lines and polygons into the 3-D online system.

Virtual Earth supports open GIS standards and allows its users to share data across various Microsoft Office apps, as well as integrate the system with Windows Servers, SQL Server and similar systems. The company will provide data and content updates as they become available via an application programming interface.

The upgraded Virtual Earth service extends the rivalry with its online geospatial information competitor, Google Inc.'s Google Earth.

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