BBC's news bulletins move into virtual reality: Corporation aims to upstage ITN with a computer-generated set and ability to produce new graphics during live transmissions

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THE BBC is poised for a high-tech leap next week into a brave news world of 'virtual reality'.

For the relatively modest investment of pounds 650,000 and a lot of sweat by in-house computer programmers, it aims to leapfrog the competition with a glitzy modern style - and also arm itself with the swiftest and cheapest computerised graphics in British television.

Out go the flashing lightning rod that used to herald the nine-o'clock bulletin and the curious animated blue file drawer at six o'clock. In come a glass model of a globe and the BBC's coat of arms, through which the presenters will appear in a studio set that owes a debt to science fiction.

This contrasts with ITN, whose revamped News at Ten uses fewer special effects and has a real set and real television monitors behind the presenter's head.

The BBC said its revamp was not just a new look, but a new way of producing news programmes. From next Tuesday, the image viewers see will look like a news studio, but will, in fact, be almost entirely computer-generated. The lights, the presenters' 'flight desk' and even the studio floor will not actually exist. Only the newsreaders will be real.

The BBC will blend its newscasters into their computer-generated surroundings in the same way that cinema technicians were able to add Bob Hoskins to the animated scenes of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The increased automation means that 13 people will lose their jobs.

This is the first time that all the BBC's news bulletins have been revamped at once, a process the BBC describes as 'news branding'. Previously they were done one at a time - most recently the Nine O'Clock News in November 1988, when the lightning rod, created by the fashionable designer Martin Lambie- Nairn, was introduced.

The presenters remain the same apart from on the One O'Clock News, where Ed Stourton, ITN's former diplomatic editor, and John Tusa, former managing director of the BBC World Service, will alternate in place of Philip Hayton, the current newsreader. The BBC is seeking a new job for Mr Hayton.

The new titles stress the words 'BBC News' and play down the names of the individual bulletins. Asked whether this might mean that the programmes would lose their individuality, Peter Bell, editor of the BBC's news programmes, explained that subtle colour changes in the studio background would mark the progress of the day.

'Breakfast has a warm, pinkish feel,' he said. 'At lunchtime it's a pale blue, but that changes to a warmer blue by six o'clock and then a darker blue and bronze for nine.'

The success of the new branding depends on the computer system behind it. One ill-timed software glitch, and the whole image could disintegrate. But if virtual reality goes wrong in the middle of a programme, real reality will take over, Tom Wragg, head of resources for BBC news and current affairs, said yesterday.

The BBC would revert to 'old' technology and send out images of the real studio set - a half-size, simplified version of the virtual set viewers see at home. The cut-glass theme for the new look swoops into the middle of the virtual studio at the start of each news programme.

The three-dimensional crest and globe were created using a computer from a company called Silicon Graphics. The aim was to create a 'clean, uncluttered' image, but the difficulty was that the programmers had to add the reflections from objects in the studio and the subtle way the light bends and colours the virtual glass as it passes through.

However, the BBC aims to make news presentation more efficient as well as visibly slicker. One of the key benefits of the new system is that the same computer that creates the illusion of the 'virtual' studio, also stores hundreds of standard graphics that producers can tweak and send out almost instantaneously for live news.

Technicians can produce a map in a few minutes that would have taken a couple of hours using the old systems. Three-dimensional graphics that would have taken up to a week to prepare can now be completed on the same day.

(Photograph omitted)