My first tour of Virtual Earth 3D in the Windows Live Search beta left me impressed by its bird's-eye view and by the easy access to information about local businesses (including free phone calls to them); but as you would expect with a beta, the service is still only halfway there.
Microsoft added the 3D view of search results to the mapping component of its rechristened Windows Live Search service (formerly called Windows Live Local). Windows Live Local will become a yellow- and white-pages directory of local information, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.
A map interface for local search results makes perfect sense, and the transition from the typical list of links to a flat map, satellite, or 3D image of the location is relatively seamless. Currently 3D views are available for only 15 cities, but Microsoft intends to offer such content for as many as 100 metropolitan areas by the middle of next year. Unfortunately, when I used it, the service crashed my browser--Internet Explorer 6--on two different PCs, and getting from the main Windows Live Search results pages to the maps and 3D views took several more clicks than it should.
From 2D to 3D via download
If you want to skip the standard search page entirely, you can access the service directly and enter a business name, category, or address (a simple city name or zip code will do as well). On your first visit you'll see the 2D map view; but if you click the '3D view' link, you'll be prompted to download the 4MB Virtual Earth 3D plug-in for IE (the program doesn't work in any other browser).
The service also requires Windows XP Service Pack 2 or Vista, a video card with at least 32MB of memory, hardware acceleration set to Full, and Microsoft's .Net 2.0, which is another multimegabyte download. It's ironic that Microsoft "recommends" a broadband connection rather than requiring one. The 3D view's performance was herky-jerky on a 1MB DSL link, so I wouldn't even attempt it over a dial-up connection.
Questionable default settings
After accepting the license agreement and installing the applet, you'll see that the options to add a Live Search shortcut to your desktop and Start menu, and to make Windows Live your IE home page are checked by default. I'm sure that Microsoft thinks it's doing me a favor by adding to my screen clutter and changing my home page, but I prefer to make these decisions for myself, so I unchecked both options.
The installation also asks whether you'd like to visit Microsoft's download site to add the Windows Live Local for Outlook extension (another option that's checked by default). I went ahead with the 3.49MB download; but when I tried to install it, I was instructed to reinstall Outlook (the installation routine didn't like my MAPI32.DLL file). That's where I bailed.
When you're finally back in IE, you'll see that the service has selected a view setting based on your PC's hardware and software. You can change this by opening the Options dialog box, but in this instance I went with the service's suggestion.
You still have one instructional screen to click through before you get the 3D view: A pop-up tells you the keyboard-mouse click combination for tilting and rotating the view. Again, the option to view this instruction every time the 3D view opens is checked by default. Uncheck that option and click Close to start the 3D engine.