Microsoft on Monday unveiled a new, downloadable browser application that brings the photorealism and maneuverability of gaming into its online mapping and local search service.

In Virtual Earth 3D, which is part of Microsoft's Live Search, users can "fly" over cities and in between buildings just like they do in virtual-reality environments, like that found in the online 3D world of Second Life. However, in the Microsoft interface there are no avatars, and the buildings, roadways and geographical landmarks depicted are replicas of real urban landscapes rather than versions of a community based on fantasy.

But Virtual Earth 3D does include fixtures that might not necessarily be visible in the real world: "virtual billboards" float above buildings with advertisements on them as part of a pilot advertising program, said Stephen Lawler, general manager of the Virtual Earth group. For instance, Fox has a virtual billboard hovering above the AMC cinema in downtown San Francisco. Other advertisers are Nissan Motor, Zip Realty and John L. Scott realty.

Different advertisers will rotate through the billboard ads, and users will be able to click on them to go to the advertiser's Web site. Eventually, the ads may be targeted to reflect the user's query, Lawler said.

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Related Link: MSN Virtual Earth