Rather than just overlaying 2D street scene photos onto a map, what if you could virtually transport people there by showing them video? That's the premise of a new Microsoft system currently in testing.

Microsoft engineers and researchers are attempting to one-up Google Maps by creating route animations with the abundance of panoramic street-view photography so you can experience your trip before you drive it. It's called Videomap and it's quite clever.

The main issue with representing the trip before you make it is, unless you're traveling within a mile of your house, the time it would take to watch the trip on your computer is too long to be useful. Conversely, if you were to speed the entire trip up it would be nonsense. The software bridges this gap by speeding up and slowing down the video based on landmarks and turns.

Even better, since it's a panoramic camera, they're able to slow down the video and crop it so the driver looks around the turn as if they were driving themselves. It can also turn to show obvious landmarks along the journey and zoom-out when the data is less important (i.e. when traveling along an extended area with few turns or landmarks, like a highway)

Limited studies show the technique results in increased accuracy and reduced time spent consulting maps, which is good, though the limitation of this technique appears to be the increasing accessibility of GPS when you travel. For this reason, the system seems better matched to waking, biking and transportation that takes places within a certain time-compressed zone than driving.

Individuals with difficulty grasping spatial data in map form tend to utilize landmarks in determining their travel and a system like this seems suited to serving their needs. It's also fun to watch. Just imagine being able to reminisce about your old hometown by taking a quick virtual drive down Main Street to see what shops and restaurants may have changed. Sounds pretty cool to us.

[Microsoft via Technology Review via Jason_Pointin</a]