Building a Virtual Earth

How the Vexcel Acquisition Contributes to Microsoft’s Vision

Dr. Bill Gail

Jerry Skaw
Marketing Communications Manager

Microsoft Virtual Earth Business Unit
Boulder, Colo.

The multi-faceted technology of the Internet is rapidly transforming our lives. The ability to quickly search, find and share information has changed the way we operate at work and at home.

Today, ‘geospatial’ is the hot word around the Internet. The new Internet services providing imagery of our communities and maps around nearly everything are a part of everyday conversation in business and social settings. Internet search companies have come to recognize a very simple concept: information relevant to our everyday lives can be naturally organized and effectively searched, in a geospatial context.

Figure 1 - Windows Live Local ‘street-side’ feature presents imagery in a split-screen navigation window.In the upper navigation pane, users can tour their destinations through street-level imagery. In the lower navigation pane, users can alternate between three navigation vehicles—race car, sports car, and walk-by—for varied approaches to using location information. This screen shows San Francisco viewed from a sports car. Note that the image on the front cover of this magazine may also be used within Virtual Earth.

For the billions of consumers using the Internet, this is powerful stuff. Bill Gates’ vision of the ‘geospatial’ Internet was unveiled this past October during his 50th birthday speech in London: “You’ll be walking around in downtown London and be able to see the shops, the stores, see what the traffic is like. Walk in a shop and navigate the merchandise — not in the flat, 2D interface that we have on the web today, but in a virtual reality walkthrough.”

This new geospatial world is revolutionary for both consumers and businesses. A decade from now, people will be using geospatial information in ways that are hard to imagine today. Those working in the geospatial field now will play a central role in that transformation; personal and professional lives will be altered as a result. Gone are the days when mapping was a quiet occupation — those in the geospatial field today are privileged to be at the heart of an information revolution.

Microsoft® is dedicated to turning this image of the future into today’s reality. Bill Gates’ vision is not simply words. He has committed the Microsoft resources and the creative team needed to accomplish the vision. The result — Virtual Earth™ within Windows Live Local ( — is currently available as one element of Microsoft Live, an initiative to make software and information routinely accessible as services through the Internet (see Figure 1). But this is only the beginning.

Virtual Earth will ultimately become a virtual ‘world,’ collecting and organizing a wealth of information about Earth and the cities and towns we have built on it. People will count on Virtual Earth in their everyday lives for many things. They will use it to plan their travel and to visit places they might otherwise only dream of. They will play video games using realistic representations of any city or town in the world. They will even be able to add content themselves, uploading images from mobile phones — a ‘living, evolving’ virtual world.

Figure 2a - At the front end of the Vexcel fully digital workflow are the UltraCam-X and UltraCam-D large format digital aerial cameras, and the UltraScan5000 precision photogrammetric scanner.

Businesses will use Virtual Earth as a focused means to find and contact the consumers who need their products most. Imagine making a dinner reservation and routinely reserving a table based on ‘virtually’ sitting at different tables to select the best view. Companies will improve the efficiency of their operations by using Virtual Earth to access the latest weather and environmental information associated with their manufacturing and shipping activities. The government, a very large user of geospatial information today, will depend increasingly on Virtual Earth as the source for their custom application needs. Even the science community will employ Virtual Earth as the starting point for a wide range of scientific analyses and modeling. And it will help everyone to better understand every last corner of the planet on which they live.

The Virtual Earth vision is built on large volumes of high-resolution imagery. With this in mind, Microsoft began establishing partnerships with key imagery providers more than a year ago. On May 23, 2005, Microsoft and Pictometry International (Rochester, N.Y.) announced a five-year agreement to license Pictometry’s existing and new nationwide aerial images for use in Virtual Earth. Pictometry captures up to 12 views of land features in a given area, each at a different angle. This oblique imagery provides Virtual Earth users with aerial views in a 3D-like manner, allowing them to see around objects within their search area of interest.

Microsoft next partnered with ORBIMAGE (now merged with Space Imaging to form Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye), announcing on June 29, 2005, a 5-year agreement to incorporate the company’s global library of high-resolution satellite images into Virtual Earth. At the time the deal was signed, Microsoft had access to OrbView-2 and OrbView-3 imagery. Now, Microsoft also has access to GeoEye’s IKONOS archive and will have access to even higher resolution imagery from GeoEye-1 when it is launched early next year.

Microsoft then entered into a third five-year agreement. This time it was with EarthData (Frederick, Md.), one of the largest U.S. aerial mapping companies. The agreement provides access to EarthData’s new and archived LiDAR and radar data, as well as map production support.

Microsoft’s commitment to Virtual Earth also goes beyond these agreements to include acquisitions of companies chosen to round out internal capabilities. On December 23, 2005, Microsoft announced the acquisition of GeoTango Corporation, a Toronto-based provider of desktop and Web-based 3D geospatial visualization and mapping products and solutions.

Then, on March 15, 2006, Microsoft entered into an agreement to purchase remote sensing company Vexcel Corporation. The deal was completed May 4, 2006.

Figure 2b - Vexcel’s UltraCam-X captured this stunning imagery over Graz, Austria during overcast and rainy conditions.

Why did Microsoft acquire Vexcel, and what role will Vexcel play? For over twenty years, Vexcel Corporation has been a leader in imagery, photogrammetry, and remote sensing technology. Vexcel has long been known for its expertise in synthetic aperture radar (SAR). More recent prominence has arisen from the highly successful UltraCam digital aerial mapping camera. Vexcel has 135 full-time employees and is headquartered in Boulder, Colo. (with additional operations in Canada, Austria, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands). As part of Microsoft, the company remains headquartered in Boulder and has retained all of its field offices. John Curlander, former CEO of Vexcel, is now General Manager reporting to Stephen Lawler, who is General Manager of Virtual Earth. The vast majority of the current Vexcel team continues to report to Curlander within the Virtual Earth team. Vexcel will also continue to develop, sell, and support its full line of products.

Virtual Earth is central to Microsoft’s significant investment in local search. The local search market is estimated to be tens of billions of dollars annually. Microsoft is making a major bet that winning in local search will revolve around providing the best visuals and richest, most dynamic data that can be viewed and used in a mapping and local geographical context.

Vexcel’s experienced engineering team and rich set of products and services will play a central role in helping Microsoft deliver on its vision to provide a dynamic, immersive digital representation of the real world for Virtual Earth. Microsoft has an incredibly talented team of people already working on this vision. To achieve the goals for local search quickly, Vexcel was an obvious choice to augment the team.

Vexcel will contribute in the following three ways:

The first contribution will be through its people. Vexcel’s talent pool, coupled with extensive experience in 2D and 3D imagery, will be critical to delivering the most immersive experience possible on the Web. Vexcel will take the lead in providing an automated imaging pipeline that will enable rich sets of aerial, bird’s-eye, and streetside imagery to be delivered to consumer, commercial and public sector offerings in a much easier and more timely fashion than is currently possible. Vexcel will also play a central role in creating the ‘real world’ foundation that enables new information and immersive mapping experiences to be added continuously to make Microsoft’s offerings as much like the real world as possible.

Figure 3 - The Vexcel UltraMap Server integrates with the UltraCam and UltraScan devices, easily ingesting aerial imagery. With a robotic library and large disk space, data can be safely stored, archived and catalogued using spatial references for the image header. From there, Vexcel’s UltraMap WorkSuite delivers automated and radically improved photogrammetric production.

Figure 4 - Vexcel’s FotoG is the leading close-range photogrammetry system used to take precision measurements and create 3D as-built CAD models directly from photographic imagery. FotoG also allows users to apply photo textures to 3D building polygons displayed in the CAD environment, as pictured here.
The second contribution will be through Vexcel’s current technologies, which will be important tools for producing the richest, most dynamic sets of imagery and data in the world. These technologies support the Virtual Earth vision in three key areas: photogrammetric mapping, radar mapping, and high-speed data handling.

Photogrammetric mapping technology is the foundation for much of the imagery in Virtual Earth. Over the last decade, Vexcel has become a major supplier of photogrammetric products — including a full suite of products and services for automated photogrammetric production. Strengthening this position in the mapping and GIS field, Vexcel introduced its UltraCam large format digital camera in 2003. It has been the leading digital aerial camera in sales for the past two years. Along with Vexcel’s UltraScan5000 precision photogrammetric film scanner, the UltraCam serves as a front-end collection device for Vexcel’s fully digital photogrammetric workflow (see Figures 2a and 2b).

This workflow also features the UltraMap Server for archive, catalog and production management, and the UltraMap WorkSuite for automated photogrammetric production (see Figure 3). Rounding off its photogrammetry capabilities is Vexcel’s FotoG™ close-range photogrammetric software, which allows users to make measurements and to create 3D textured models from imagery captured by digital, handheld cameras (see Figure 4).

Vexcel has built its mapping and photogrammetric capabilities in support of the aerial photogrammetry market. Virtual Earth will drive a considerable need for aerial photogrammetry products and capabilities. Vexcel’s UltraCam and automated photogrammetric workflow will play a fundamental role in meeting this need.

Radar mapping technology will ultimately provide an important complement to Virtual Earth’s optical imagery. Radar provides information about the Earth that cannot be obtained by any other means. Vexcel’s innovative advancements in new synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image formation and processing technologies include digital elevation models (DEMs), interferometry, tomography, shape-from-shading, and the ability to combine radar with high-resolution optical data, to name just a few (see Figure 5).

The company has also recently made advances in radar tag development and wireless field instrumentation. Vexcel’s radar capabilities will provide the basis for new and innovative Virtual Earth content. Radar data will be used for the underlying DEM upon which all of Virtual Earth will be built. New spaceborne, aerial, and terrestrial radar sensors will fill gaps left by the limitations of optical sensors. Vexcel’s current radar software products will provide the basis for business-oriented applications that leverage Virtual Earth to meet targeted business needs. Also, an ongoing robust radar R&D effort will supply new applications, many of which we can hardly imagine today.

High-speed data handling technology underlies nearly every aspect of image acquisition. Vexcel’s expertise in this area comes from building high-speed satellite data terminals (see Figure 6). The in-house expertise needed for these terminals spans data from reception and telemetry processing to precision product generation and image exploitation. The company has provided end-to-end, integrated, multi-satellite systems to commercial and government customers needing real-time data acquisition and efficient handling of large data volumes. These same capabilities will be scaled up to real-time networks of sensors to store and catalog vast information sources, as well as to process and publish the information in real-time to Virtual Earth.

Figure 5 - Examples of Vexcel’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image processing technologies.

Figure 5a - Perspective view of digital elevation model (DEM) created from Tandem ERS SAR data (copyright ESA) over Nunavut Territory, Canada.

Figure 5b - Interferogram showing speed of a glacier and the topography of its constraining valley walls.

Figure 6 - Vexcel’s ground station offerings feature the ProtonTM high-speed, direct-to-disk telemetry processing system, supporting import and export streaming data rates to 800 Mbps.
Vexcel’s third contribution, though not least in the list of reasons for the acquisition, will be Vexcel’s experience with business in the government sector. Vexcel has extensive experience working with government contracts, providing solutions to geospatial problems in a broad set of areas for a range of customers. Microsoft is committed to expanding business in this sector, and Vexcel’s experience will play a significant role.

Since the Industrial Revolution, technological advances have consistently resulted in mainstream phenomena that impact our lives to the extent that we wonder how we ever managed prior to their existence. The Internet is just such a phenomenon. Over the past 10 years, it has connected people from all over the globe, providing access to a vast wealth of information by empowering individuals to share their knowledge and experiences. It has created new business models, from Web-based businesses to Internet service providers to Web design and development agencies: an entire new business ‘ecosystem.’ It has accelerated the adoption of the home personal computer and is largely responsible for virtual work forces, home offices and telecommuting—the ability to work anywhere, anytime.

The geospatial Internet revolution is destined to be the next wave of the Internet; some day, we will wonder how we managed without it. At the heart of this revolution will be Internet Search Portals such as Microsoft Virtual Earth, which will change the way we search and explore our world, drastically reducing the time necessary to gather location-based information. The time-savings gained will make individuals, businesses and government agencies—particularly local law enforcement, emergency preparedness and homeland security—more efficient and effective. And, much as the first wave of the commercial Internet created a business ‘ecosystem,’ this new Virtual Earth-based wave will as well.

Vexcel’s technologies will be critical to this geospatial revolution, serving as Microsoft’s center of excellence, providing the best-of-breed imagery that will make up the Virtual Earth ‘real world’ framework. In doing so, the company will continue to work towards enabling the vision that many in the geospatial industry share—the widespread availability and use of digital Earth information to enhance society.

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