The map featured in video game Grand Theft Auto V is 49 square miles of virtual reality—a massive undertaking for the developers behind the project. The average city in Bing’s new 3-D mapping app, on the other hand, covers 154 square miles—and the service is launching with more than 70 of them, amounting to roughly 121 trillion pixels of imagery.
Now you can experience the feat yourself. Microsoft has introduced a preview of the new version of Bing Maps. The 3-D experience, which lets you zoom in on landmarks with window-pane clarity, has been built from the ground up by a team that includes video game veterans and photogrammetrists using aerial cameras and petabytes of HD imagery. More than a decade after the launch of Keyhole Earthviewer, the foundation for Google Earth, Bing’s new service shows that its competition with Google and Apple over mapping superiority is far from over.
Like Google Earth, the Bing Maps preview enables users to navigate through a lifelike, virtual world of streets and buildings. Developed for touch interfaces, users can pinch to zoom into areas of the map, and pivot and twist the experience to change viewing angles, whether to see the topography of a mountaintop or the street view of an alleyway. Blaise Agüera y Arcas, the architect behind the project, is certain to point out that this isn’t simply "satellite view." Rather, he says, the experience is "generated by planes, at a lot lower altitudes, which creates a lot more parallax, a lot more 3-D than you can get from an Earth orbit. These are giant, gigapixel images shot at high frequency, once every couple of seconds, reconstructing a super-dense 3-D point cloud of the Earth."
To Arcas, the experience is more than just a novel gimmick to attract more users. "We would not go in to this extraordinary, frankly expensive, technical challenge just to make these map app scenarios better," he says. To him, the virtual world provides a more engaging and effective navigation experience—one that helps us better understand the physical world.
But it’s clearly also designed to be fun—a way to attract new users to Microsoft’s platform. It’s partly the reason Google creates products like Earth and Street View, and that Apple spent so much time highlighting the novel aerial image capturing of its own mapping service, however flawed it turned out to be. Arcas himself showed off some exciting mapping technology a number of years ago during a Ted Talk, when he revealed how the company could reconstruct 3-D graphics from a set of images, bringing to life what otherwise would have been a series of flat photographs to "reconstruct the geometry of the world," as he says. That same image stitching technology is now being used in Bing Maps.
What’s especially unique about the Microsoft’s service is that it’s bringing its mapping technology to a list of unexpected locations. Whereas Google and Apple tend to show of their technology by zooming in on landmarks in major cities like Rome or San Francisco, Microsoft has chosen to focus on cities such as Bismarck, Cheyenne, and Topeka. The same is true for the cities its captured abroad, from Bolonga, Italy to Darwin, Australia. Perhaps it’ll give users a new reason to check out places that haven’t been so heavily photographed from the sky by rivals in the space.
Due to the significant investment the company has to make to map each city properly in 3-D, it "will be a while before we have every city," Arcas says. "It takes time to image cities. They have to be under the right conditions, in the right seasons." But soon enough, he adds, it’ll be just as common and universal as the traditional mapping services we have today.
To check out the app preview, head to the Windows Store. There’s just one catch though—you’ll need a Windows device to use it.