Imagine the perfect shop assistant who is always in a good mood, never answers back and remembers what suits you.
Edinburgh researchers are trying to build one. They think it will take them three years, and their tools will be virtual reality, interactive video, speech technology and software engineering.
The shop assistant will help with home shopping on the Internet. Such shopping is already possible but pundits have to "point and click" to guide themselves around the goods on offer.
"What we'll be developing is the next generation of home shopping," says Mervyn Jack, director of the Centre for Communication Interface Research at Edinburgh University. The customer will switch on and talk to a three-dimensional assistant. The assistant will greet the customer, recognise their voice and remember what they last bought and their favourite sizes and colours.
Professor Jack said that the researchers "will simulate the 'touch and feel' of today's shopping experience, replacing this with virtual reality versions of goods and products and interacting with the virtual worlds via synthetic people with synthetic faces who can recognise the speech of the shopper".
One of the big technological hurdles of the work, which is a Pounds 3.75 million project funded by the European Commission's research programme on advanced communications, ACTS, will be the dialogue. The interface between computer and customer must appear natural, multilingual and distinguish between different accents.
First in the United Kingdom to try the shop assistants will be a network of 130 tele-cottages in rural areas. The centre, which includes engineers, scientists, linguists, psychologists and media experts, is working with researchers from firms in Europe. UK partners include Great Universal Stores, a home shopping group, and Unipalm Pipex, a Cambridge-based company.