Everyone has made mistakes when it comes to interior decorating. Next time let a computer do all the work, says Gwenda Joyce-Brophy
Your new kitchen looks superb. The (new) halogen lighting is switched on, showing the (new) units at their stylish best. The walls are freshly painted, the terracotta floor is pure Tuscany, the cookery books... Hang on a minute, the cookery books don't look quite right. Let's move them to the right of the cooker. That's it, perfect. Shame, then, that it isn't real.

Instead, this wonderful new kitchen is a computer simulation, as close to virtual reality as we have come when choosing furniture and an indication of how we will be purchasing major items for the home in future. The concept is simple: input the dimensions and details of your room, then bring in computer representations of the furniture you're considering buying and move it around to see how it looks.

Computer simulation offers huge advantages. How many of us have never regretted how we've decorated our home? As software packages become increasingly sophisticated and the concept is offered as a service by more shops, such mistakes should become a thing of the past.

One firm which has adopted the concept is Nolte Kitchens, which uses Planit International's software, one of the most advanced of the new packages. "At one time the computer-aided kitchen was flat and characterless; now the representation of colour and details is extremely accurate," says Nolte UK's managing director, Brian Evans. "And because you can add accessories, it can look incredibly lifelike."

Buyers can also view their new kitchen units under alternative sources of lighting, as well as against different coloured walls or tiling. And once the room has been completed, they can take a look around and see how it shapes up from different positions and perspectives.

Jenny and Tom Brandhurst recently used a computer system when they chose their new kitchen. They used an "autoplan" option where, instead of choosing and placing each item, they picked out a style and the computer system designed their kitchen based on this. "We provided room dimensions and agreed on some guidelines for the computer system, for example, that the sink was under the window, the cooker at right angles to the sink so that a work triangle was created - although we could have overridden these if we had wanted to."

Their verdict on choosing a kitchen this way? "For us, the crucial issue was price, and the system allowed us to play around with the costing until we got within our budget. It also added a fun aspect to what is a serious decision. Kitchens cost too much nowadays to get it wrong."

The service is not limited just to kitchens. Planit International supplies its Planit Professional computer-aided design system to bathroom, bedroom and general furniture suppliers, as well as kitchen companies. Rolf Benz, the German design company, has opened a showroom in the UK and uses a computer-aided design system to help customers put together pieces from its range of modular-based sofas, chairs and tables. Benz uses a system called Wohn Vision which allows potential buyers to "upholster" furniture in different fabrics and colours. Although probably not yet available at your nearest sofa shop, this technology isn't just the preserve of those who can afford designer prices. "There are plenty of companies offering this sort of service and they are not all in pricey brackets," says Tahsin Khan of Essential Kitchens, Bathrooms and Bedrooms magazine.

Indeed, there are many stores offering the computer option - complete with whizzy colour and multi-angle facilities. High-street retailer Heal's offers a computer design service, as does John Lewis. In the latter case, a pounds 50 fee is payable, returnable if you place an order. Among the out- of-town outlets, DIY giant Wickes will produce a computer representation of your proposed dream kitchen. Meanwhile, IKEA has a computer design element in its kitchen-planning service, but encourages customers to use the graph paper and hand-drawing method. And Habitat has yet to succumb to the virtual approach.

So what is the next step? We may find suppliers sharing the same package, so a customer can cherry-pick pieces from more than one range. Customers choosing a kitchen the virtual way can already pull in appliances and sinks from other manufacturers, and, as the package is usually linked to the supplier, orders can be made instantly. Perhaps it won't be long before you can store a virtual reality version of your entire home in your computer, trying out furniture and accessories from online suppliers, and ordering real versions that take your fancy.

HOW TO GET THE MOST FROM THE SYSTEM

lNarrow down your choice of furniture first. While it can be fun choosing it this way, no company is going to be happy if you monopolise their technology for hours. There's every chance you'll get bored anyway.

Check beforehand if there is going to be any cost for using a particular outlet's service, or any commitment to buy. Generally suppliers do not charge, although even within the same company this is often at the individual distributor's discretion.

Planit International has a list of 60 bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen firms using the Planit Professional package, tel: 01233 635566. Nolte kitchens, tel: 01279 868500; Wohn Vision at Rolf Benz furniture, tel: 0171-323 6552.

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