Art and design faculties nationwide are being encouraged to improve their skills in three-dimensional computer modelling. Resource centres in "networked virtual reality" have been established at three universities, with more than Pounds 250,000 worth of support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The centres are at Coventry University, the University of Teesside and the University of Plymouth.
"The main thrust is to get the technology out there, understood and used in the art and design sector," said Clive Richards, director of Coventry's visual and information design centre.
Collaboration and exchange of 3-D models over the Internet has recently become easier, thanks to data formats such as VRML which can be handled by varied hardware and software.
The centres will offer conferences, seminars and short courses for art and design academics. Each will provide support within its geographical area and a national service in specific subjects. Coventry will concentrate on transport, product and information design. Plymouth will focus on performing arts. Teesside's speciality include archaeological reconstruction, and the manufacture of product prototypes with a computer-controlled machine that builds up models "like icing on a cake".
"This is the first major funding for this sort of work that has come the way of art and design," said Professor Richards.
Colin Beardon of Plymouth's arts and education faculty said that 3D modelling techniques can be applied to sculpture, furniture, ceramics, architectural spaces and landscapes. Professor Beardon's department has written software which helps theatre set designers to prototype ideas rapidly.
* The University of Nottingham has opened a Pounds 1.7 million "reality centre" to give businesses in the East Midlands access to virtual reality design technology. The project is sponsored by Silicon Graphics and supported by the European Regional Development Fund.