China’s biggest search engine, Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU), is hosting its annual Baidu World event today, so new features are being dished out like free coffee. Here’s another. Baidu Maps has gotten a couple of pretty sweet new features in the form of a highly-detailed 3D digitized landscape for some cities – sort of like in the game Sim City. At full zoom, you can make out Mao’s portrait very clearly atop Tian’anmen (pictured above), or see the cherry trees in bloom outside a hall in Shanghai (pictured below).
The other new feature for its online mapping service is a 360-degree tour of select iconic buildings. [UPDATED: The 3D maps are not new, a Baidu rep points out; just the 360-degree imagery for some buildings is newly revealed today. It'll roll out "later this month or in October" and you can see a preview image here].
But the digitized 3D maps – which feel almost like 8-bit computer game images, but more detailed – will be more useful for most folks than the 360-degree tours, giving a pretty clear view of all the buildings in an area, with the building’s name revealed by mousing over it. At the moment, all this new action occurs only in the desktop-based version of Baidu Maps, and not its apps for Android or iOS.
The revamped Baidu Maps marks the fourth-generation of the service. It’s up against Google Maps in the country, as well as Tencent’s Soso Maps which have a different standout feature: photographic StreetView-type images for lots of cities. But apparently Baidu reckons this funky cartoon-esque view will be more useful. China’s top search engine does also have a satellite view, which launched late last year.
As revealed by the watermarks on the 3D images – on the few cities where they actually work, such as Beijing and Shanghai – the new Baidu feature is actually licensed from Edushi, a digital mapping service which has been doing these neat and cutesy maps for years, I recall. (I dread to think how China’s fast-changing urban landscape will impact the artists who have to make these maps and keep them updated).
Earlier today, Baidu also rolled out a major relaunch of its mobile browser for Android, Symbian, and Windows Phone, indicating that it’s thinking carefully about its mobile strategy too.