John Curlander

General Manager, Microsoft Virtual Earth

Less than a year ago, John Curlander was the top executive at Vexcel Corp., a longtime supplier of aerial cameras, satellite ground stations and image-processing software, but a virtual unknown outside the remote sensing industry. Today, Curlander works for one of the most recognizable names in the business world, Microsoft Corp., which acquired Vexcel in May.

Curlander is leading the software giant’s Virtual Earth initiative, which aims to bring geospatial data out of the esoteric world of scientists and military planners and into the lives of everyday people. As envisioned, Virtual Earth is an Internet-based, searchable archive of aerial, satellite and ground photos. It is Microsoft’s answer to Google Earth, a geospatial imagery database that was launched in June 2005.

A key difference between the two, Curlander said, is that Google Earth users must download a software program to perform searches. Virtual Earth, he says, will be embedded into Live Local, Microsoft’s existing Internet map database that also provides information including directions, and local weather and traffic reports.

On Nov. 6, a prototype of Virtual Earth debuted on Live Local, enabling users to explore a selected group of cities as if they were there via 3-D images. Curlander is responsible for developing and expanding the Virtual Earth database, in part by cultivating business partnerships and customer relationships.

“We’re building an empty city, taking out all the people and all the cars,” Curlander said. “People just need to show up.”

Curlander spoke recently with Space News staff writer Missy Frederick.

What kind of coverage does Virtual Earth have now?

We have global Landsat and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data. We’re also overlaying suburban data at higher resolution, somewhere in the area of 30-centimeter resolution. We don’t have a lot of that now but are expanding. In the cities, we move into the realm of 15-centimeter resolution, and street-side imagery is down to a few-centimeter resolution.

We’re creating a prioritization scheme for building out the imagery that is based on population density, level of interest, etc. For example, we might have more detail in a beach or coastal area, or an area that is dramatically changing, such as in the suburbs where they are building things out.

What is Virtual Earth’s plan for making money with the Live Local search program?

Advertising in Live Local is going to start happening soon. Microsoft has the technology for embedded advertising; it comes out of the gaming world. Today, we can drop billboards into a city and display advertising. The real key thing is how to relate advertising into a search with context, for what the user is looking for. TV advertising is annoying, and within the Internet world, we know what the customer is interested in, so we can do some direct marketing so that it is a valuable experience for them. We’re not trying to shove it down people’s throat. We still have to work with advertising and try to figure out how we’re going to work direct marketing. But the good thing about the online ad market is that it’s rapidly growing; we expect that localized online advertising will be a $10 billion market by 2009, so we can profit rather quickly.

We also may do something where people access Live Local on a subscription basis, with two different models. Consumer users are free, and they have ads, and businesses could pay for it without advertising. As for businesses customizing the platform, real estate seems to be an early adopter, and also retail — people like Starbucks, etc. It’s an important market, but the most important market segment we’re interested in is the search market.

What are the biggest assets that Vexcel has provided for Virtual Earth?

The main thing that Microsoft is looking to do is to build out a global framework of the world, and the core technology for doing that is photogrammetry. They’re also using radar sensors, and we’re working with a lot of partner companies to help us collect aerial and satellite data. Microsoft doesn’t own the sensors — we build them and sell them to companies that work as our partners. We don’t control the whole collection. We want to work with companies that excel at those kinds of things. I think that we’re really promoting the geospatial industry and driving it forward by being a customer for those guys.

Is Microsoft considering acquiring any more companies to expand Virtual Earth?

We don’t have anything on the horizon today. We’re definitely looking at more partnerships, however, and hope to have an announcement about one at the Geoint 2006 conference in Orlando.

What is your relationship with the providers of commercial satellite imagery today and how might that evolve?

We do have an agreement today with GeoEye. Our business model right now focuses on their archive as opposed to tasking and collecting imagery.

We’re also in discussion with a lot of different satellite operators; as you know, there will be about a dozen operators in the next 12 months or so. We’re out to find the best business relationship for our business model, which is trying to create a visual experience for our users. I think our approach is different from what the satellite operators are used to — we’re not the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). So we’re not tasking the satellite, and not consuming their resources, so we’re a good value for the kind of revenue we can generate. It’s a special relationship for a kind of limited use of the data instead of the kind of global use that NGA might have.

Do you see a significant government market for Virtual Earth?

One thing I learned when Vexcel was acquired is that Microsoft does a lot of government business already; it’s the fastest growing business in Microsoft. We have a relationship with government agencies. This type of system can solve many needs of the people who need access in the field. We don’t claim that our data is better than what NGA has, but what we’re trying to do is create a foundation and a backdrop and a sharing of information that they don’t have today, making it available for everyone, all the way down to hand-held devices in the field.

The biggest challenge for us is bringing this onto a private network with classified information. It’s a challenge that we’re working on today.

Google Earth has been operating for some time now, and has name recognition and an established fan base. How much catching up do you have to do?

We’re Microsoft, so we also have some pretty big name recognition. If it was the old Vexcel, I’d say forget it. Google’s a good company, and they have a good product. But what Microsoft is doing is building out a framework from scratch, acquiring our own aerial data, processing our own 3-D models. What Google and others are doing is aggregating existing data. Also, their data is not integrated into their search — they have Google Maps and they have Google Earth. We’re definitely not at the end of this game; we’re only in the beginning.

We have 15 U.S. cities built out now in 3-D. We expect to be at 100 by the end of June, and our ultimate goal is to get up there in the thousands, and to improve the quality as well.

Are any of Vexcel’s core businesses being phased out now that the company is part of Microsoft?

Today, we’re pretty much doing the same kinds of activities, but shifting them more towards the needs of the Virtual Earth program.

But outside the United States we have shifted our focuses to doing mostly services, working with our data for specific applications, such as the project we did tracking mining in Romania. We’re working in the United Kingdom , the Netherlands, Austria and Canada. We do work for the European Space Agency, the European Union, that kind of thing.