Animated map flyovers for handheld video, using Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo

During the early flush of Google Maps excitement I made a screencast of the animated display of a route. This seemed to me then, as it still does now, a compelling use for a handheld video player. Eighteen months later that vision is almost but not quite within easy reach, as I discovered this weekend.

My idea was to transform a variant of this route into a video that I'd put onto my son's Sony PSP (sshhh, don't tell him) and take with me on my bike ride. One piece of the puzzle -- how to transfer a video to the PSP -- was already in place. A few weeks ago I realized that ffmpegX, the GUI-wrapped version of the all-purpose ffmpeg encoder, has a preset option for encoding to the PSP's format. Very cool! A few experiments showed me that although screencasts (as I suspected) don't play well on the small screen, motion videos and animations do.

I can imagine two different modes of capturing an animated map flyover using the Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft map services. In the first and simplest mode, you'd have a route description in hand, and you'd feed it to a service that would simply emit your video. You wouldn't alter the route, and you wouldn't be zooming in and out to inspect details as shown in the screencast cited above.

In the second mode you'd do an interactive flyover, panning and zooming as needed. You could run a local screen camera to capture the video, of course, but the much cooler solution would be to relay your stream of navigation events to a service that would again automatically produce and emit your video in the desired target format.

Since my aim was to explore roads not previously taken, I didn't have a canned route, so I decided to use the interactive approach. And since there's not yet a service that will capture events and produce video, I planned to do local capture and ffmpegX conversion.

So I tried doing the interactive flyover in each of three mappers: Google's, Yahoo's, and Microsoft's. This led me to compare them on a feature that I'd never really cared about before: keyboard navigation. In all three mappers you can fly around video-game style, using the arrow keys, but the experiences are very different. Here's what I found:


At this point it was too nice a day to mess around on the computer any more, so I bagged the experiment and hopped on my bike. But it was an interesting discovery. Although Google has the most detailed satellite imagery, at least for the area I was exploring (Lake Sunapee, NH), if my goal were to do an exploratory flyover for conversion to an animated video for handheld display, I'd have used the Microsoft service instead, because it's easier to control the flyover.

What about Google Earth? I'd rate it slightly behind Google Maps. If you're trying to fly smoothly and continuously over a winding road, what works best -- at least for me -- is to use arrow keys individually for up/down/left/right, and in combination for other directions. On that criterion, Microsoft's service comes out ahead of the others, at least in my subjective experience. I'd be curious what others think.

More broadly, I wonder who'll be the first to achieve the deluxe implementation I've sketched: interactive flyover, relay of navigation events to a web service, automatic production of downloadable video in the format of your choice -- including PSP, iPod, etc.

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