SCOUTING for the best table in a restaurant is now just a click of a mouse away.
Similarly, car enthusiasts can check out the latest models at a Porsche showroom and shoppers can browse through knick-knacks at Beach Road's Army Market in the comfort of their home.
These discoveries made easy are the result of new virtual tours on Google Maps which provide a 360-degree view of the interiors of about 400 businesses and heritage sites in Singapore.
Entry into these places can also be done through a Google search, which will allow people to "walk" through these places.
The Straits Times understands that Google is expected to officially launch the offering in Singapore at the end of this month.
People who have taken the virtual tours in the past months say it has changed the way they explore and shop.
Property consultant Casper Dixon finds it a breeze to pick the best place for a meal. "I meet people all the time and it helps me book a quiet restaurant with good ambience," said the 39-year-old.
Google has certified technology firm Smap Agency to create the virtual maps since January.
They are created using Google's Street View technology with high-definition still photographs.
This indoor version of its Street View project - called Google Business Photos - was launched in the United States two years ago and is spreading abroad.
Singapore is the second in Asia, after Japan, to adopt it.
Mr Lester Lai, Smap's chief executive, said most companies on board are shops, restaurants and bars, though it has photographed the interiors of places as varied as hostels, hair salons, art galleries and gyms. And besides big names like Zouk, he is also keen to draw in small and medium-sized enterprises, including the small shops at Far East Plaza.
"These shops sell such a large variety of things but not many people know about them because their shops may be at some obscure spot," said the 34-year-old.
Smap also worked with the National Heritage Board to produce virtual tours of places such as the Tiong Bahru air raid shelters and Thieves' Market in Sungei Road.
Even if these places vanish as Singapore changes, "future generations can at least enjoy a virtual walk through them", Mr Lai said.
Photography firm LiveStudios has also been certified by Google to create interactive tours.
"The response has been very promising," said its head of technology Richard Stokes, who added that the firm had done offices as well as wedding showcases.
Businesses which have their interior shots online said their customers welcome it.
"People who usually call and ask where the quiet areas are and if tables can be combined can now see it online for themselves," said Ms Sharmaine Khoo, 24, creative manager at bistro-lounge The Vault, on South Bridge Road.
Others such as bookstore Books Actually and bag retailer Crumpler said it allows their overseas customers to get an inside view of the store in Singapore.
"When they write to us, we not only can give them our address but also let them take a virtual tour," said Mr Eric Lim, 40, head of Crumpler Singapore.
Added Mr Kenny Leck, 35, co-founder of Books Actually: "After taking the tour, some may buy from our online bookstore."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 22, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/