When Microsoft launched its Live Local/Virtual Earth 3-D platform earlier this week, the memorable quote from Virtual Earth GM Stephen Lawler was, "It's the beginning of the 3-D Web." As a factual matter that statement may not be entirely accurate, but symbolically it is.
Numerous companies, such as Planet 9 Studios, have been working on 3-D modeling for a long time. Then, of course, there's Second Life and MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach. Now comes 3B, which allows users to create their own personalized 3-D "villages." There's also the world of avatars, which is growing.
In the larger context of online trends, we're seeing the rise of more imagery and visual information initially exemplified by Flickr and more recently by online video and YouTube. Sharing and community are integral to these experiences. (Also, check out the provocative new demo of Microsoft's Photosynth. Here's a previous post on it.)
Microsoft acquired Vexcel for, among other things, the company's capacity to do automated 3-D rendering. Vexcel CEO John Curlander said that the company is rendering eight cities a month, moving quickly to 16. Accordingly, the Virtual Earth 3-D platform will have well over 100 cities by the end of Q2 next year. By contrast, Google is letting the community build 3-D models, which is proceeding steadily according to Google Earth GM John Hanke. Also, Google has a way to rate/rank the best and most detailed models, among duplicates, for maximum quality ("model complexity.")
You can bet that Google will be accelerating the development of these 3-D models for Earth.
All the coverage in the past week has been around the "red meat" competitive question of whether Microsoft has now surpassed Google Earth with Virtual Earth 3-D. The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Microsoft has made 3-D cities broadly accessible by making them available in the browser (though there's still a plug-in to download). No, in that the experience of using Live Local 3-D in the browser is currently much slower than using comparable functionality on Google Earth 4.
Both products have APIs/developer tools that allow third parties to build on top of these "platforms." But let's forget about the "who will win?" issue. Let's look at the bigger picture, which is more interesting anyway.
The question of what's next in search is often posed and left unanswered, because it's very hard to image what might replace the ubiquitous text box. But, in my opinion, a partial answer is starting to emerge. It involves variables of place (local/geo-coding), rich media (images, video, 3-D) and community. I wrote some time ago on this blog about Google Earth as a "geobrowser" and alternative Web-search paradigm.
Almost anything that you can do in text/2-D can be done in a more fun and engaging way in 3-D and/or with video. With limited exceptions pictures are, in fact, worth more than a thousand words.
The Internet is rapidly becoming more "textured" and rich media and community are at the center of that trend. In one corner, social search is being seen by some as a successor to machine algorithms (or at least the future includes some hybrid). In another, "social networking" sites -- which might be now better labeled "social destinations" -- continue to gain more and more consumer traction. In addition, online video is growing fast both as consumer experience and as an online advertising vehicle.
There is much more to discuss in terms of how geo-location, rich media and community play out in search (or "discovery"), as well as the advertising opportunities that may lie on the other side for both large and small businesses. My point is only that the foundation is now being pretty clearly laid for new search and discovery tools and new user experiences that are much more complex and engaging than what exists today.