Microsoft launches 'Virtual Earth' beta

Test version of tool combines mapping, satellite imagery and yellow-pages data. Coming later: views from 45-degree angles.

Microsoft has unveiled a test version of a new location-based search tool, the software giant said Monday.

Virtual Earth--which offers a combination of aerial imagery, maps and yellow-pages data--is designed to let users search for and share information about specific U.S. locations, the company said.

For example, a searcher can enter an address and see a map, an aerial photograph or an aerial photo overlaid with highway labels. A search field on the upper left lets the user retrieve information on businesses and other sites, which the tool displays in a collapsible pane. Virtual Earth relies on licensed yellow-pages directories for this information, Microsoft said.

Additionally, a "scratch pad" features lets people save addresses that they've searched for.

The service, which Microsoft announced in May, is free. It's designed to interact with other Microsoft tools, including MapPoint, the local features of MSN Search, and aerial imagery from TerraServer-USA, the software giant said.

Virtual Earth also includes a feature called "Locate Me" that determines the user's location using Wi-Fi access points or Internet Protocol address geocoding. The information is then presented in the form of a map with the user's location highlighted.

The tool also offers features for e-mailing search results, bookmarking them or posting them on a blog. People can zoom in or pan the aerial pictures via a virtual compass.

"When you're in an unfamiliar city and need to find a nearby Chinese restaurant or ATM within walking distance of your hotel, a traditional Internet search experience won't give you the visual location-specific information you need," Stephen Lawler, general manager of Virtual Earth, said in a statement. "MSN Virtual Earth provides a deeply immersive search experience that lets people see what it's like to be in a location and easily explore what they can do there."

In the next beta version of the tool, slated for release later this year, the company plans to add bird's-eye-view imagery depicting cities, landmarks and other sites at a 45-degree angle. The feature will rely on technology from Pictometry International.

Mapping services based on satellite imagery have been catching the attention of search companies lately.

A service announced by Google recently already incorporates a feature that allows people to see buildings and terrains in three-dimension.