You’ll be able to get a much closer look at Somerset House from today without even needing to set foot in London, thanks to Microsoft and its increasingly popular Bing Maps. Head over to the service on either desktop or mobile and you’ll find a detailed floor by floor and interactive plan of this famous centre for the arts down to the level of cafes, restaurants, studios, rooms, terraces and landmarks, and soon with what events are going on in each of them at the current time.
It didn’t take Pocket-lint too long to work out why the idea of venue maps is not a bad one when we caught up with Kevin Stagg from Bing UK Mobile at the Fernandez & Wells cafe in Somerset House to take us through the details.
"Just walk in there and you’ll find it" is an all too often used phrase when it comes to navigational tips for meeting places. Pocket-lint walked into the central courtyard at Somerset House. We didn’t find it. In fact, it took quite a few minutes of wandering around in yet another unseasonable May. Did Microsoft plan this to prove a point?
“We’ve got a bunch of research where we know that up to 50 per cent of mobile search has some kind of local intent and so is very contextual,” says Stagg, outlining the reason for Bing Mobile’s push on venues as we shake off our dripping coat.
“From a smartphone perspective, there’s a core local piece to it. That’s where we try to push some major attention - to make sure we have a really good local offering, a really good maps offering - so that you can find things, you can understand things and you can get to things. So you’re always getting things done. That’s part of the ethos of Bing. Bing is for doing.”
There are currently about 1,000 venue maps live on Bing with 60 or so relevant to the UK. They’re not rendered in 3D as you might find on some of the more detailed sections of Google Maps but they are more informative. Move your mouse over the different rooms and buildings and you’ll get dedicated information on each which is set to go far deeper than just name and phone number as the service matures, and the point of such a break down of information, as well as locale, is all about planning and discovery.
“We have an audience target and we understand how they’re using it," explains Stagg.
"Venue maps is one of our key elements. You can plan in advance. You can see exactly where you want to enter the building and exactly where you’re going. And, once you’re there, what else can you do?”
The changing events side of the equation is the next step for Bing. To work out exactly where in the Somerset House courtyard your friends are sitting with their picnic to watch the film is one thing, but discovering other exhibitions going on around the building for when you’re done is where Stagg wants the experience to go next.
“We want people to get the most out of the things that they’re currently doing and we want them to find out a little bit more. This is our audience. They want to find new places, they want to find new things, they interact with their smartphones a lot and they want to know what smartphones to get next and what it can do for them. And they want to come to venues like this because there’s the the ice skating in the winter, the films in the summer, fashion, exhibitions and things like that.”
“It becomes an extension of social tools more than anything else, and the more people use Bing Maps, the more that those social extensions become available to them.”
For Somerset House itself, the tie-up with Bing Maps is a no-brainer. The institution is no stranger to advances in technology with a recent exhibition project with augmented reality specialist Aurasma using AR on site as well as having just developed its first iPad app used as a taster for the Pick Me Up graphic art fair recently held at the venue.
“We’re hoping it will bring people in here that normally wouldn’t come in, as well as those that come here all the time,” confirms Visitor Service coordinator at Somerset House, Daniel Roberts.
“It’s taken less than a month from our talks with Bing to come up with the venue map and it’s launching at the same time as our Time for Tai Chi two-month long programme.”
Somerset House is only one of two venue maps listed under Buildings on Bing Maps - the other being the Barbican. The bulk of the other 58 are made up of shopping centres, airports and a handful of football stadia but it’s more of the “historical, trendy venues that are always changing” that seem to be highest on Stagg’s hit list for this next wave.
Bing, of course, has been facing an uphill challenge ever since it decided to take on the dictionary definition of a search engine that is Google, but it’s a challenge that Microsoft seems to be taking on with quite some relish and success to boot. Bing search and maps are baked into the Windows Phone experience and the desktop versions are doing well, but it’s a harder sell for those on other mobile platforms. So, what’s the angle?
“Our search results are not heavy in terms of their UI. We don’t pull lots of graphical assets. It’s very clean, it’s very crisp and we can show all the information instantly because it’s all text based,” convinces Stagg.
“As well as the local results, we also have beautiful homepages with little bits of information you get each day about them. It’s a nice thing to see. We give you something more attractive in the initial experience and we get you to doing things quickly.”
Speed, minimal data use and touch of class are certainly all welcome but while that might wash on iOS with the dedicated Bing app, there’s an awful lot of Android users out there stuck with a browser version of the offering. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely the bottom of the Bing mobile pile, and, as much as Microsoft would like Android users to know that there is an alternative to the out of box Google experience, perhaps, for now, that’s a search too far.
Nonetheless, the venue maps are well worth a look in. Whether it's finding your way to the right turnstile of a football stadium or working out the fastest route to your gate at the airport, Bing is leading the way.