View From Above
Virtual Earth is one of the more exciting things I saw at Where 2.0. It takes MSN Maps and combines a handful of features to make it more useful and markedly more visual. A scratch pad keeps track of locations, so you can build a map based on all of the places on your list. When you find what you're looking for, you can create driving directions, email to someone else, email to yourself, or blog about it on MSN Spaces automatically. There's a slick Locate Me button that finds your current location based either on IP address or an ActiveX control, which I'm sure will have privacy advocates buzzing, although both versions of the feature only pinpointed me as being within 100 miles of Seattle. You can find out more about Virtual Earth by listening to this interview with Steve Lombardi of the Virtual Earth team and by taking it for a test drive. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
Virtual Earth went live a little earlier than anticipated, presumably because Google just integrated satellite photos with their mapping service. I'm more impressed with Virtual Earth at this point. It gets a closer zoom on the satellite images and produces more relevant results. Google had the wow factor down ages ago and an open API certainly gave them a head start in letting people create cool stuff with Google Maps. What Virtual Earth does better is give me the data I want instead of giving me a bunch of other junk too. When I search Google Maps for Whole Foods (the grocery store in my neighborhood) for instance, I get a bunch of other junk along with it. Virtual Earth only shows me Whole Foods locations around Seattle. I still get better results using Google's text search engine, but I was put off by the driving directions feature of Google Maps from day one and I remain less than impressed as they add new features.
I'm currently brainstorming a way to create my own media server / navigation system for my car. Last week I wrote an article for InformIT on all the variations on integrating your car stereo with an iPod, but I want to take that concept further. I want to add a PC that can use my Audiovox 5.6-inch screen as a display for both browsing music and providing driving directions. If touch screen technology weren't insanely expensive, I'd try that instead. I was originally toying with the idea of only building in GPS navigation from scratch, but if I need a computer for that, I might as well take several extra steps beyond. The biggest missing piece is user interface components. Voice activation might work, but I'm thinking I'll need some kind of manual control as well. If the computer had a continuous internet connection, I could skip GPS nav and go straight for integrating with something like Virtual Earth, which might be possible with a Bluetooth adapter and my Audiovox Smartphone. Once I find all the parts, expect a full photo how-to.