Multimedia services are broadening the information market, says Janet Robson
The financial markets have always been quick to adopt information technology. In London, the "big bang" moved share trading from the stock exchange floor to computer screens nearly a decade ago. Now multimedia technology is bringing a new dimension to the City's screens - and provides a clue to the technology that will sooner, rather than later, find its way into our homes.

The traditional providers of real-time financial information, the Stock Exchange and Reuters, no longer have things all their own way. The Canadian company Videotron, which already provides cable television to much of south-east and west London, next week will connect the first customer in the City to its new business information service. The UK's first cable- to-PC multimedia service offers a mix of real-time share, commodities and foreign exchange prices, top news wire stories (provided by Tenfore), and business television channels, including CNN, NBC Superchannel and the parliamentary channel.

Reuters provides the service with two exclusive half-hour television programmes bringing business news and analysis. "It's not exclusively financial news," Nick Pellew, telecom and business information director of marketing at Videotron, says. "We aim to be the Economist of the television world."

Other services, such as Reuters' own Financial TV, offer more specialised programming, but "no one else is offering a combination service like this that is genuinely multimedia", says Mr Pellew. Video-tron's service runs in a Windows environment, allowing other applications to be used at the same time. The company expects to add more information sources as the service develops, eventually offering PC-to-PC videoconferencing.

Now the company is focusing on providing its first customers, which include an international bank and a loan company, with its basic services. This costs £320 a month per PC with a £400 installation charge. "The information market is booming, and information is no longer at a premium," Mr Pellew says. "Operations like ours are bringing prices down, which will be a further spur to the information revolution."

Although multimedia services such as Videotron's put more information at a broker or businessman's fingertips, they do not revolutionise the way investments are assessed and made. For services that might, you have to look to the US.

Avatar Partners, a Californian virtual reality company, launched its first financial software package last autumn. VrTrader shows stock market data as three-dimensional ob-jects surrounded by text and graphics. Investors select stocks and place them into a grid. Each stock looks like a coloured pole - when the share price falls or rises, or relevant news reports flash up, the poles change colour, grow or fall, spin, flash or bleep. The package costs less than $500 and runs on a Windows PC.

VrTrader is aimed at personal investors, but Avatar is looking at developing a workstation version for a higher-end machine. "We are talking to some Wall Street firms," says Avatar's chief executive, Peter Rothman.

Wall Street in New York has been experimenting with virtual reality for some time. Shearson and Salomon Brothers have both been working on VR. Mr Rothman says: "We think it's an idea whose time is coming."

One area to which VR software such as VrTrader could be applied is derivatives, the complex financial instruments that caused such havoc at Barings. Because VR makes three-dimensional graphics easy to understand, it should be possible to make the relationships between bond yields and interest rates comprehensible. Perhaps if Nick Leeson had used one at Barings, the flashing and bleeping of his poles would have attracted attention a little earlier - providing, of course, his alleged "rogue trading" had not already crashed his personal computer.