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Mapping the physical World into the Virtual

For thousands of years, maps have been made. Attempts to chart the terrain, the landscape, locations of settlements and hunting areas. Over time these maps became precise to the finest detail; effortlessly charting roads, rivers, contour lines, and even individual buildings.

Precise mapping became essential for tasks ranging from surveying, to route finding.

Eventually maps became digital, and all manner of computerised versions sprung up. Yet, for all the centralisation, and innovation, one thing never changed: For all their promise, computer based maps look, and function exactly the same as their printed brethren.

They are flat, with little lines and symbols. Abstract representations of a given area. Helpful, to navigate towards a location, but not the easiest things to help you recognise a place you have never been to; to visualise it; to walk around, to recognise it later when you approach it in the physical world.

Google Earth was a great step forwards, it uses satellite photo data, taken from straight up, looking down on the world, to provide the roofing of buildings and streets, to see the canopy of forests, the tops of mountains, and unending ploughed fields.

The problem is, pictures that look straight down, are not in 3D. They are 2D, and give no indication of depth. This is especially true since the difference in height between a tower block and the ground, is next to nothing compared to the height between the tower block, and the satellite several hundred miles above.

Now, both Google and Microsoft have launched 3D maps, giving you the up and down as well as the right and left. Google is asking those who know the buildings to extrude height information, creating a bland maze of grey towers, that is definitely 3D.

Microsoft, have taken a very different approach.

Microsoft 's general manager of Virtual Earth, Stephen Lawler stated "We think it is a shift in the way people will interface with their computer, so we want that immersive environment to be as real as possible and as high quality as possible.

"Right now you have a great sense of everything around you. If I gave you a camera to capture this area in 2D, it would be very difficult for you to capture the essence of the environment we're in.

"3D gives you the fluidity for navigation, to fly through the environment as well as the more natural sense that you are familiar with."

In other words, they are angling for a true 3D environment; one where the buildings look exactly the same on the map, to the physical location. A map where it is possible to get a top-down view, and then enter the map world on the PC, and see the location from street level. Walk around, so you can match it to the location when you arrive, from the view you will see it at.

Rather than using satellite pictures, Microsoft has been dispatching aircraft to fly over the world's cities. By using low flying aircraft, they can search building from a variety of angles; not just from straight down.

Digital imaging equipment on the plane sees each building as they approach it, as they fly over it, and as they leave it. Criss-crossing over each area from several different directions builds up a composite of the building which software extrapolates into a precise 3D shape.

They even bought up the Graz-based Austrian company which designed the unique camera system to make these 3D renditions.

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