The 'Independent' is sponsoring a prize for the best use of multimedia to coincide with the Multimedia '96 show next month. In the run-up, George Cole profiles some of the entries. First, virtual reality at Marks & Spencer
Pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap used to be the maxim for selling goods to customers, but today's stores use a more scientific approach. The buzzword is visual merchandising, which means putting products in the right place to show them in their best light. Retailers spend a lot of time deciding whether, say, the jeans should be placed next to jumpers or T-shirts, and what colours mix well. One of the entries for this year's British Interactive Multimedia Association awards is using virtual reality and CD-Rom technologies to help store managers from Marks & Spencer get to grips with visual merchandising.

Every year, store managers from all over Europe converge on Milton Keynes where M&S has a large store showing all the current clothing ranges laid out in an ideal way. The managers spend a couple of days studying the store layout before going back to base. "It can be difficult for managers to communicate what they've seen to their staff without any visual information. What's needed is a system that allows others to see, or better still, explore the store for themselves," says Ian Haynes, a partner of the London- based multimedia company, Cimex.

Cimex has developed a virtual version of the Milton Keynes store using a technology developed by Apple Computer called QuickTime VR. Most virtual- reality systems use computer-generated graphics, but QuickTime VR allows software developers to use photographic material. To produce a virtual version of the store, 40 key points or nodes were selected. A 35mm film camera fitted with a wide-angle lens was placed on a special tripod at each node. The camera was rotated and a series of shots taken to create a 360-degree panorama. The wide-angle lens meant that the individual shots overlapped each other, so there were no gaps. The QuickTime VR software electronically stitches the pictures together and also creates links between the nodes, allowing users to "travel" around the store.

The program, which is stored on a CD-Rom, runs on a standard desktop multimedia computer, although QuickTime VR requires lots of RAM (32 megabytes). The user has a mouse to control an interactive screen, which consists of a large VR display, store map and text (which gives product details and other information). Users can wander around the store and zoom into any product. Some items have hot spots, which identify the product when a cursor is moved over them.

There is also spoken commentary and five guided tours. The system is designed for non-computer users and trials at M&S's Baker Street headquarters have found that most people can pick up a mouse and go. "The Virtual Store isn't designed to replace the Milton Keynes visits," says Haynes, "because it's good for people to meet others and discuss things. But this system means that a manager can go back to their store with a CD-Rom which shows the rest of the staff what they've seen."

The VR program took less than a month to develop and cost the same as a training video. A fair price, you might think, for ensuring that the sock display doesn't clash with the pyjamas.

Multimedia '96 takes place from 18 to 20 June at the Business Design Centre, London N1. For details call 0171-288 6408. Fax back: 0171-288 6407. Email: http://www.bdcevents.

Call Cimex on 0171-359 4664.