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Visit Baltimore … on your iPhone

Visit Baltimore has partnered with Baltimore-based architecture and graphic design firm Ayers Saint Gross to develop an interactive, virtual map of the city — embedded with the tourism agency’s extensive database.

Thomas J. Noonan shows off Visit Baltimore’s new interactive, virtual map of the city Monday.

Thomas J. Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said the agency will soon release a smartphone and iPad app equipped with the unique technology, in hopes it will enhance Baltimore’s accessibility to tourists and provide businesses with a game-changing marketing tool.

“When people see Baltimore, they buy it,” Noonan said Monday at a demonstration of the new app.

The pricing and format of the app is not yet finalized, but officials said they hope to finish the process later this year. An online version is up and running at virtualdestinations.com.

The map’s imagery is similar to a videogame environment, with panoramic views of city locales. Because software links to the entire Visit Baltimore database, users can click on individual businesses to read details, navigate personalized street routes and customize searches to locate a hotel, restaurant or meeting space that fits their needs.

“I think the closest thing to it that everybody can understand is Google Earth,” said Glenn Birx, vice president at Ayres Saint Gross. “The difference is that this links to somebody else’s database and makes the data visual for them.”

Noonan first saw Ayers Saint Gross’ mapping abilities when the firm presented its redesign of Baltimore’s convention center about a year ago. He said the technology was “a dream come true,” and wanted to apply it on a larger scale.

He said he envisioned the app primarily as a sales tool — a visually stimulating way to showcase the city. Visit Baltimore officials can use it when marketing the city to potential clients of the convention center, for instance, while other companies can tailor it to their individual needs.

Visit Baltimore has dubbed the app “Baltimore Insight,” but the product’s working title at Ayers Saint Gross is “Virtual Destinations,” making it clear there are big plans beyond Charm City.

Birx said his firm is already negotiating with several other potential clients, including most of the major convention cities nationwide. He did not reveal specifics because proposals are still in early stages, he said.

“This thing started with bringing people to Baltimore for conventions, but it goes well beyond that,” Birx said. “It’s a link to anybody’s database, anybody who could benefit from showing it visually. You can apply this well beyond a city. We can do it to a college campus. We can do it with real estate.”

Visit Baltimore paid Ayers Saint Gross about $40,000 to develop the product, Noonan said. But that sum hardly covered the firm’s expenses.

“We spent three times what they’ve paid us,” Birx said. “But that’s a business investment for us.”

Noonan said he hopes Baltimore Insight will enhance a first-time visitor’s ability to navigate the city — a crucial goal in this town. Tourism generates about 74,000 jobs in the Baltimore region and brings in more than $1.1 billion in tax revenue, according to Tourism Economics, an industry consulting company.

Baltimore is the first city to develop this kind of app, according to Noonan, and Ayers Saint Gross executives — who all live in the area — said the local aspect made them especially eager to develop it.

“At a time when cities are competing for customers, why not give Baltimore every possible advantage that we can?” Ayers Saint Gross Senior Associate Brian Russell said. “We already have the technology. Why not give these guys everything they need to sell the city?”