Understanding the Difference Between Interactive Maps and Virtual Tours

July 24, 2020 by Darby Gelhard

From healthcare and real estate to tourism and higher education, virtual tours have become indispensable marketing opportunities. They allow your audience to truly dive in, digitally immersing themselves into the space to draw conclusions that have previously been limited to in-person visits.

3 Sample Virtual Tour Scenarios

  1. If you can digitally visit a college across the country, do you really need to attend an open house?
  2. Why look at static pictures of a new investment property when you can emulate a physical visit?
  3. Wouldn’t choosing the perfect vacation spot be so much easier if you knew exactly what to expect at a given site or hotel?

Virtual Tours are Transforming Industries

Studies like this one by Google have shown a strong correlation between virtual tours and user engagement, which makes intuitive sense. Few media opportunities are more attractive than one in which the viewer navigates around and explores the space on their own time and preferences.

Virtual tours are so effective, they’re the big new thing in these and other industries. Some might even say they’re replacing digital maps in their functionality. And there’s the problem: when exploring the differences between interactive maps and virtual tours, many assumptions are actually more closely related to myth than reality.

Make no mistake: differences do exist between these two media. But once you examine them more closely, they’re smaller than anticipated. These are two extremely interrelated concepts that work well in concert. Let’s dig in, starting with an exploration of frequent myths before exploring the intersection between both in real-world case studies.

The Myth: Interactive Maps and Virtual Tours are Separate Concepts

holding phone with interactive maps and virtual tours

This is a frequent and tempting assumption. It assumes that virtual tours and online maps are entirely separate from each other:

  • Interactive maps are static and boring, showing buildings and landmarks without much opportunity for interaction or immersive experiences. At their best, they offer helpful info for planning, such as parking directions.
  • Virtual tours are dynamic, extremely visual, and disruptive. They are replacing maps anytime a business or non-profit organization wants to show its best side. As the name suggests, they’re often built-in virtual reality and correspond much more directly with your audience’s preferences for visual marketing.

A slightly different version of this myth is less drastic but still makes a crucial distinction. In this assumption, virtual tours are nothing more than a component of digital maps.  The map provides the background and foundation for the tour, which is the marketing piece that engages audiences.

As we’ll discuss throughout this article, that assumption is not entirely wrong, but it still misses a crucial point. It assumes the same “separate concepts” fallacy as the previous assumption. In reality, though, the two concepts are entirely interconnected. In many ways, virtual tours and digital maps have actually become indistinguishable from one another. They can be built on each other, but even then, the integration is so tight that the differences are difficult to spot.

The Reasons Behind the Tour/Map Myth

We understand that the myth exists, which brings up a natural follow-up question: why is that the case? Why do we immediately associate virtual tours with cutting-edge visual technology and digital maps with more static, informational but relatively boring alternatives?

The Origin of Maps

At least part of the reason can be attributed to the origin of maps. They’ve been a part of our history for thousands of years, offering even cavemen the ability to depict easy opportunities to find their way back to a spot. Maps from as far back as 2,300 B.C. still exist today. 

Even beyond that ancient history, maps are traditionally static. When we hear the term, even if it’s in the context of digital experience, we think of road maps that guide us to popular tourist spots or globes that help us perceive the earth. We can look at them, glean vital information, but they remain static and unchangeable; after all, they just depict the physical, unchanging landscape of our environment.

Analog vs. Digital

That’s the mindset with which we consider maps. It contrasts starkly with virtual tours the mere mention of which transports into a high-tech environment connected to the future. Virtual, after all, is immediately digital. From the first time the term appeared in the mid-1990s, it’s been synonymous with cutting-edge technology and a formerly unachieved sense of immersion.

Even the tour part of the name suggests a digital alternative to interactive possibilities; in any tour, of course, you’re able to ask questions and walk along. It’s only natural to make the assumption that a tour can lead to the same type of experience.

This type of background to both terms and their associations explains better why we perceive such a big difference between interactive maps and virtual tours. But that perception, as we’ve already hinted at, is far from reality. Let’s dig into how the two actually intersect.

The Reality: Real-World Intersections Between Virtual Tours and Interactive Maps

 

Digital map and virtual tour

Virtual tours and digital maps are actually very similar. We’ve made that point above, but let’s put some proof behind it. For each of the below links, ask yourself: virtual tour or digital map?

George Washington University – Tour or Map?

It certainly looks like a map, with accurate representations of buildings mapped directly onto clear delineations of streets. You can imagine a student using it to find their way to class on the first day of their freshman semester. 

But look closer, and it’s actually a virtual tour. Each of the buildings offers interactive experiences through a simple click. At the bottom of the screen, visitors can take a complete guided tour or explore the various campus areas by topic.

The fact that it appears as a map does matter, though. Click on a building, and you can still map its exact location or get driving directions. The close, even blurred relationship between map and tour showcases the point above: the differences between the two seemingly separate concepts can actually be minute.

The College at Brockport – Interactive or Virtual?

At first glance, it’s clearly a map. Then you look again, and it seems more like a tour. This is actually a digital map, but one built cleverly to bring the same types of experiences as virtual tours. 

Each building is clickable and provides both imagery and descriptions to help visitors not just find their way, but explore the campus in the process. It even incorporates 360-degree shots that will look familiar from virtual tours. 

Yet, it’s officially classified as a map. The functionality might be wayfinding, but that doesn’t mean immersive experiences aren’t possible in the same sandbox. The lines, once again, are blurred.

Our Concept 3D Interactive Map – Or Is It?

At first glance, our sample interactive map is clearly just that — a map. After all, that’s what we call it even in the introductory description. But is it really limited to that functionality?

If you’ve been reading this far, you already know the answer: of course not. As clearly as this is a digital map, it also functions as a virtual tour. Look closely at the bottom. Eight separate spots allow glimpses into the services offered by Concept3D, guiding visitors through each stop as part of a tour. 

Each stop is interactive, with clickable opportunities and the ability to virtually ‘look around’. In other words, it neatly fits the definition of a virtual tour — even though part of that virtual tour is actually a map.

Hotel Del’s Wayfinding Map – That’s Also a Tour?

Open the interactive map from Hotel Del, and you’ll find what you can expect from many high-quality products like this: a clearly accurate and GPS-mapped depiction of the exterior premises, complete with the ability to choose different spots within the premises to get specific descriptions and directions. You can even switch between exterior and Level 1 interior views to find your way to the front desk or breakfast area.

And yet, within that experience, there’s a tour option. Click on it, and you get to a number of panoramas that connect to each other to allow you to virtually explore the hotel. The map, though, doesn’t go away; it continues to exist as the baseline and grounding for where you are at a given time, at the bottom right corner.

This example may show a more clear distinction than the others above; after all, you toggle between the map and the tour. But even then, it’s clear just how closely the two integrated to create a holistic, immersive user experience.

What Are the Actual Differences Between Tours and Maps?

two young women looking at tablet outside

We’ve spent the bulk of this article proclaiming the similarities between virtual tours and interactive maps. But make no mistake: they are still somewhat separate. Those differences, though, are much more subtle than what you might expect.

4 Distinct Differences Between Interactive Maps and Virtual Tours

  1. Interactive maps are grounded in physical locations and the relation of those locations to each other. Virtual tours are grounded in the experience of actually walking through these locations and digitally ‘looking around’.
  2. Interactive maps have to be complete in the information they show. A map missing a road or building will not be successful. Tours can pick and choose the locations to highlight based on the biggest business benefits and best user experience.
  3. The technology driver behind interactive maps tends to be GPS mapping to ensure complete accuracy. The technology driver behind virtual tours includes appealing visuals, especially 360-degree and VR cameras.
  4. Interactive maps are viable for both internal and external audiences. They can be used for anything from wayfinding to fleet tracking. Virtual tours are more geared towards external audiences, typically in a marketing sense.

These differences are undoubtedly subtle, and sometimes imperceptible. That’s because, in a way, every interactive map is actually a virtual tour. Add a couple of pictures and videos, and you give your audience the opportunity to not just help in wayfinding but truly explore. The more immersive it gets, and the more of a narrative it builds, the more it begins to tilt towards a true virtual tour.

It’s important to keep these differences in mind. At the same time, it’s even more important to realize that they’re not always important. If a virtual tour is based on and expands on a digital map, the combination of the two can become a truly powerful technological opportunity for purposes that range from planning to marketing and recruitment.

Interactive Maps and Virtual Tours: What Does Your Organization Need?

At this point, the conclusion to the article is clear: virtual maps and interactive tours are always similar and sometimes impossible to distinguish from each other. The major perceptual differences are largely myths, especially for well-built maps that offer more than just static wayfinding opportunities. Not every digital map is ready to become more interactive, but the technology is becoming increasingly available.

The natural question, then, is not necessarily whether you should choose a virtual tour or interactive map for your business or organization. Rather, the question becomes how you can integrate both into a more comprehensive digital experience for your audiences.

How Can You Integrate Interactive Maps and Virtual Tours?

Take college-seeking students and their families as an example. They may look to a map for wayfinding to get to the right parking lot for an upcoming event. At the same time, they would also like to explore the campus. Separate maps and tours will lead to confusion and sometimes missing one or the other entirely. A combination, on the other hand, can leverage marketing messages and opportunities even as the audience gets the help they’re looking for.

To get to that point is not necessarily easy. You need a partner who can help you build not just one or the other, but a full integration between your digital map and interactive tour. That’s where we come in.

Concept3D is a leader in the mapping space, particularly in higher education and healthcare. We leverage technology that enables us to do exactly what we describe above: fully integrated and immersive interactive maps and virtual tours. Contact us today to start discussing a potential partnership.

Topics: Interactive 3D MapVirtual Tour

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