24-hour video library finds a niche

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It looks like a cash dispenser: a couple of slots and a television screen in a side street in Islington, north London. But this hole-in-the- wall is different. It dispenses videos and CD-Roms.

The dispenser, the first in Britain, will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and allow members to choose from up to 520 of the latest video releases or 910 CD-Roms, and also to book and return them.

Video club members get a smart card which they can charge up. Videos can be picked by a simple menu system displayed on the video screen, which allows the user to browse by movie title, plot type (thriller, comedy and so on), actor or director. When a video is selected, it is retrieved by the machine and ejected in a plain cover from a slot by the screen.

The design comes from Italy, where it was launched seven years ago. There are 4,000 machines there, and the videos' plain cover plays an important part, said Massimo Pini, director of Cinemat UK. "The video market in Italy is much more about hard-core porn. It's better if there isn't a gaudy cover."

To stop children getting access to films rated above PG, the smart card contains a code indicating what categories of film the user can take out - though there is no way of preventingchildren using an adult's card.

Thomas Oronti, of Cinemat UK, said: "The video market is picking up again as the novelty of satellite television has worn off. These machines allow people to choose the film they want to watch any time of the day or night."

Mr Oronti said: "These machines can be put anywhere. In Italy it is common to lease an area of another business and not to have a shop at all."

Lavinia Carey, director general of the British Video Assocation said: "Many people have looked at launching this system in the UK and decided that there are a number of problems with it. Customers lose the ability to browse and they don't see any advertising."

Rob Mead, news editor of VTV magazine, said "Anything that breaks down the video rental monopoly and broadens people's access to videos is a good thing.

"The problem is that pay-for-view on satellite may kill it dead because people will be able to down-load any film they want without moving from their armchair."