We all know what virtual cities are supposed to look like. They have plazas, domes, structurally unfeasible arches, lime-green lollipop- style trees and azure skies. They are definitely not supposed to look like dreary inter-war north London suburbs where people actually live. The last time Arnos Grove was at the forefront of design innovation was when Charles Holden bestowed a cylindrical Underground station upon it in 1932. Now the neighbourhood has been used as the basis for a virtual townscape that is surprisingly close to real life, thanks to Andy Smith, an enterprising PhD student at University College London's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis.
Smith has realised that the way to get people interested in urban planning is not to dazzle them with science fiction, but to give them images that look like the view from their own windows, and the tools with which to improve them. He hopes that his Collaborative Virtual Design Studio project, part of Online Planning at CASA, will develop the means by which local people can be genuinely involved in the processes of planning changes to their neighbourhoods. Like virtual cities, the conventional artists' impressions on display in the public library never show how things will really be. It's always a sunny day, Smith observes, the kids are laughing, and there's a hot-air balloon in the sky. "It's not real, but it's how they get things through," he points out. A visitor to his virtual townscape sees a parade of shops, some generic houses, a red bus - to impress foreigners, but it's a suburban Metrobus rather than the Routemaster that tourists love - and trees with leaves instead of bright green lollipops. To add a touch of character, there is a digitised image of the Angel pub at Rotherhithe.
The telephone boxes are standard BT issue, not classic red Giles Gilbert Scott kiosks, but their attraction is that they are movable, like everything else in Cyber-Arnos. Citizens of a real neighbourhood could use this system to explore the effects of planning proposals, and to make alternative suggestions. If a phone company wants to put a kiosk on a street corner, residents can see what it would look like from different angles. They can also lift it up and put it down somewhere else. The same goes for more complex projects, such as the creation of open spaces or housing.
The viewers place themselves in the scene as avatars (in the pretentious jargon that has become standard for such animated figures, however primitive). Smith has created an image which he says is rare in virtuality; an avatar in a wheelchair. One of the attractions of digital life is that people are freed from their bodies, abled or disabled. This figure, by contrast, is designed to reveal how accessible the actual space would be to real wheelchair users.
The system can be global as well as local. Smith is setting up a collaboration with four partner university departments overseas, the idea being that international perspectives and expertise could be brought to bear on any given project. The collaboration may also be able to support itself, with advertisements dotted around the landscape, or facilities for shopping in the virtual shops. However well it works online, though, the key to success lies in how well it is connected to people on the ground. The right places - schools, libraries, estate offices - have to be found for the computers or software. Then comes the difficult part: enabling the people who don't ordinarily use keyboards, let alone modems, to get their hands on it. In September, the Collaborative Virtual Design Studio will get real when Smith goes to New York, where a housing trust in the Bronx will examine whether his system could be used in the redevelopment of an inner-city brown-field site for new housing.
The Collaborative Virtual Design project uses a system created by Active Worlds, an online service in which subscribers can stake out a piece of virtual land and "build" whatever they like on it. Active Worlds sells both "Citizen Registrations", at $19.95 a year, and the servers to set up a world of your own; there are links to 300 such domains on the central site.
Visitors touch down in a central plaza and assume an off-the-peg avatar. Any vacant land can be claimed, and there's plenty of it. Homesteaders tend to be conservative folk, with a lingering attachment to walls and roofs; their taste can make a powerful case for planning laws. The good citizens of Kensington, dismayed by the prospect of a Diana commemorative garden, might just count their blessings if they saw the virtual Diana and Dodi monument here, which bears a grim resemblance to a Soviet war memorial.
OK, the publicity screen shot has proper trees, but what did Andy Smith say about hot-air balloons? Do 3D (Anglia, Windows, pounds 30) offers home PC-users yet another way to make their own private worlds.
FREEPLAY WIND-UP RADIO
Baygen's wind-up radios not only brought information and entertainment to remote populations around the globe but also provided an innovative, environmentally sound way of making sure you don't run out of music when you run out of batteries. And now they have come of age in design terms. This new transparent version, which looks cooler than a traditional British August, seems like just the thing to take on a picnic if you want to make the most of any summertime we have left. The trademark winding handle, which promises up to an hour's play from just 25 seconds of turning (even the cranking noise it makes is satisfyingly clunky), is still there, but added to this there's now a solar panel, so if the sun's shining the radio will keep on playing indefinitely. The technology is simple but effective, and the look - available in blue, red, green (pictured) or clear - is eye-catching, not least because now you can see the generator working away inside, and watch as the winding handle speeds up or slows down according to the volume. An absolute snip at pounds 59.95. For stockists' details, call 0800 731 3052. David Phelan
Teddington Cheese is a friendly online shop, with concise details of each cheese and good use of graphics, particularly the symbols indicating whether a variety is suitable for particular consumers, such as vegetarians or pregnant women. By contrast, the Fine & Rare Wines site is geared to people who don't need to be told about what they're buying. The rest of us can browse through and gawp at the prices.