Scoble was dropping hints Saturday that the launch of MSN Virtual Earth (previous entry) was coming up. The official launch is, in fact, mere minutes away as I write this. But, thanks to some last-minute testing, Virtual Earth was live for about 15 hours this weekend. People noticed, media embargoes be hanged (Scoble: 1 2; MetaFilter; Slashdot). As a result, some of us got a chance to take a look at the new Virtual Earth site before it was taken down again for the official launch.
Some first impressions. It’s within spitting distance of Google Maps, which is to say that it comes closer in features and usability than most of the other North American mapping services; its appearance is equivalent to Google’s hybrid mode. Panning worked well; zooming was much less usable: there was a slider, but it didn’t seem to function as such; only the plus and minus buttons were working for me. (Possibly a browser issue?) High-resolution imagery was uneven: in grayscale in some areas, and unavailable, apparently, outside the U.S. (for now).
One question is certain to be about its hackability (i.e., whether an API will be provided); this site should provide some answers. (Short version: yes.)
It’s still early going, and some features are no doubt yet to be discovered, or announced, or implemented. I was not able to find the oblique imagery that generated so much buzz at the announcement, for example. No doubt more will be revealed after the announcement in a few minutes’ time; the go-to blogs will undoubtedly be Scoble’s, Thota’s, and the Virtual Earth team blog.