The Heart of Bing Maps is in Europe

Not too long ago the geospatial industry enjoyed a fair amount of anonymity. Those who worked in the profession drew blank stares at social gatherings when the topic of discussion took the inevitable “what do you do?” turn. “Mapping” was an easy enough response, though the impression left was that of the AA or Michelin Road Atlases.

Today, ‘geospatial’ is the hot word around the Internet. Web 2.0 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 visualized, simply organized and effectively searched in a geospatial context. The ability to quickly search, find and share information has changed the way we operate at work and at home.

Recognizing the importance of bringing mapping to the masses over a decade ago, Microsoft began  offering in 2000 its Streets and Trips and AutoRoute trip planning software programs. These products paved the way for Microsoft’s online mapping service, Bing Maps, with which you are likely familiar. Bing Maps provides maps and imagery to both consumers and businesses. Businesses can use Bing Maps services for both internal business purposes, such as routing delivery trucks, and to provide information to consumers, such as store locations. You probably know all this.

But few people actually know that at the heart of the Bing Maps story there is a European-based geospatial organization!

I am proud to be part of the team behind Vexcel Imaging GmbH, based in Graz, Austria. Vexcel Imaging produces a line of UltraCam branded digital aerial cameras widely adopted by mapping organizations across the world. The legacy of this camera business allows Microsoft to understand the end-to-end collection and processing of imagery.

Vexcel Imaging was acquired by Microsoft in May 2006, and since then acquisition, our team—now known as Microsoft’s UltraCam Group— has continued to develop and commercially distribute the UltraCam while additionally lending our assets and technological know-how to enable Microsoft’s Bing Maps web mapping service to feature exceptionally rich, dynamic sets of aerial and street side imagery.

In order to populate Bing maps with a consistent set of imagery—rather than having to quilt it together from various sources for which no two pixels are of the same age, specification and resolution—Microsoft launched its Global Ortho (GO) program in the spring of 2010. The GO program is the single largest imagery project ever undertaken. In less than two years, it aims to collect the entire continental United States and Western Europe (or about 10.5 million square kilometer) at a resolution which is significantly higher than that of typical web mapping services.

To carry out the GO project, we designed the UltraCamG which has more pixels than any other digital aerial mapping camera system. To get an idea it has nearly 40 times more pixels than the average handheld digital camera. The UltraCamG improves on its predecessors: because it has a larger storage unit and it can work at a higher elevation for as long as sunlight and weather permits, it requires fewer flights.

Following collection, the imagery is processed by our advanced software. During this process the imagery is corrected to remove the building lean and create the straight down views that you see on the Bing Maps web site. These images are then color balanced so that the color quality is consistent among each view and stitched together to allow for seamless online viewing.

In addition to these aerial mapping technologies, we have worked on another key element in the Bing Maps programme: the UltraCamM mobile camera. Through a partnership with NAVTEQ,— the UltraCamM provides the Streetside imagery found in Bing Maps. Like the aerial imagery, the Streetside images are also color corrected and stitched prior to publishing on the Bing Maps web site. But to support people’s privacy this imagery undergoes additional processing to automatically blur faces and license plates. Currently most Bing Maps Streetside imagery is located in the USA but collections in Europe are underway.

It is great to be part of such a dynamic group. With the development we do in Graz, we contribute significantly to the success of Bing Maps and we are proud of that. Furthermore, with the well-established international camera business we contribute also significantly to the business of Bing Maps which is also great. At Vexcel Imaging, we have two core businesses, one is the international camera business where we sell our UltraCam into the world-wide photogrammetry and remote sensing community, the other is specific camera and software developments for Bing Maps. It is always great for me to see how well these two businesses support each other. As the leading aerial camera manufacturer, we have a huge installed base of UltraCam customers world-wide. Their feedback is very important for us and loops back directly into the development of new products. That experience is also essentially helping us to run projects such as the Global Ortho project. Vice versa, Microsoft invests significantly into software development for the Bing Maps platform and since Vexcel Imaging became part of Microsoft, we have access to a wealth of algorithms developed by thousands of Microsoft researchers and developers around the globe. These outstanding pieces of software loop back into the commercial software which comes with our cameras and allows the UltraCam user community to benefit from this.

For a quick behind-the-scenes take a look at the Vexcel Imaging video on the UltraCam YouTube channel. You can also see additional videos there featuring the UltraCam as well as on the UltraCam web site


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