-- Two new services bring the world to your desktop via satellite images you can pan and zoom to get a bird's-eye view of a travel route, a prospective vacation destination, or maybe just the stomping grounds of your youth. Google Earth and MSN Virtual Earth (the latter site should be live as of Monday, July 25) also tie details about restaurants, shops, schools, and other local spots to the satellite images of your area. Both currently are in beta.
We took a look at both initial releases and found you'll explore farther with Google Earth, which provides medium-resolution images of the entire globe (high resolution for most of the United States and other areas of North America, Europe, and Asia). Virtual Earth's coverage is more limited, but it should soon sport images that look as if they were captured by a camera hovering just above the skyline--truly the next best thing to being there.
Google Earth is a downloadable Windows desktop application that links information from the Google Local service to satellite images from Keyhole, a service the company acquired last October. Its razzle-dazzle graphics require at least a 500-MHz Pentium III PC with 128MB of RAM (512MB recommended) and 200MB of free hard-disk space (2GB recommended). It's free for personal use; the Plus ($20 a year) and Pro ($299 a year) versions add tech support and other options.
Using Google Earth is flat-out fun: You can use your mouse to spin the virtual globe in any direction, or you can enter a place name, an address, or even a description ("best hotel in Manhattan") in the search box under the 'Fly To' tab to zoom like a superhero to that location. The type of info displayed varies depending on which Layers options you choose (you can pinpoint hotels, parks, or even census data, for example). Unfortunately, at present the local-search part of Google Earth doesn't always work well. For example, we entered "Mt. St. Helens" during testing and inexplicably received results for Lincoln, Nebraska.
MSN Virtual Earth had a much more unfinished feel in the demos I saw: It currently covers only the United States and major Canadian cities, and it offers fewer local-search options than Google Earth. However, the MSN product opens in any browser, and it connects with the MSN Spaces blogging site and other MSN services with a single click, allowing you to e-mail or otherwise share satellite images, maps, and your local-search results with others quickly and simply.
The service's aerial images--to be provided through an agreement with Pictometry--will eventually offer 45-degree-angle views of buildings and other metropolitan locations. Apart from looking neat, the images help you find your way in unfamiliar locales.