Will Jill seriously compete with human supermodels? She offers hi-tech, 3-D help to designers and shoppers
Bradford, West Yorkshire, could be viewing the makings of another supermodel. Jill has legs Nadja Auermann would kill for and the kind of treacly tresses Vogue lauds so highly. Then again, hundreds of teenage girls as photogenic as Jill embark on modelling careers every year. So what's the threat?

She's a microchip.

Conceived by a research team headed by George Stylios, at Bradford University's Centre for Objective Measurement Technologies (COMT), Jill is as yet still a novice: she can model only two versions of a simple cotton top and a skirt, standing upright. Thousands of calculations per second will be needed to make her move with realistic catwalk grace, including the swing of the cloth draping her body. The skirt alone takes 40,000 separate computations to mimic the fabric's tensile strength, its fluidity, its resistance to bending or stretching and the effects of gravity.

Once Jill can give that skirt a good twirl, the COMT team hopes to build a database listing fabric textures and thicknesses, body shapes, items of clothing, and even variations in cut. The plan has materialised only after heavy experimentation with 3-D computer graphics. "Every kind of material has a fingerprint," says George Stylios, "and we are now able to use that in our mathematical models. Until now assumptions were made which did not apply to fabric, and so did not feel right." The opportunity to try out design ideas on a virtual reality model such as Jill, without the risk of ruining expensive fabrics, is enough to make any impoverished fashion designer's eyes mist over with ecstasy.

Norman Powell, a member of the COMT team, shares that misty-eyed excitement. He visualises a virtual reality shopping revolution: "Shops would no longer need to hold different sizes of clothing. They could show customers how they would look on screen wearing an item they see in the shop." Gone would be the embarrassment of trying on an item two sizes too small in a communal dressing-room. "They could simply insert their personal details into a computer, which would then show them wearing the item. Then they could buy it online from their homes."

Jill and her ilk offer a convenient way of previewing next season's collections. As well as designers on a tight budget using the virtual catwalk - cutting out the stress of time management, booking cancellations and last minute major alterations - free-lance journalists would be able to maintain professional contacts more effectively if they were to view the designs online at home,

Yet not even the impending information superhighway could compress the entire international fashion scene into a collection of virtual reality CDs, however revolutionary their effects. Jill may be happy to get out of bed for less than pounds 100 a day, but, for sheer force of impact, nothing beats a live catwalk show with 3-D supermodels and pulsating soundn