Internet shoppers could soon be feeling clothes through their computer screens, according to researchers.
A completed version of the software is expected in 2005
Software using a series of interactive virtual reality animations has been developed by a fashion student at Nottingham Trent University.
Nicola Davison designed the programme, called Click 2 Touch, "to make shopping online fun and rewarding," she said.
The development comes as figures show almost 40% of products bought online are returned by dissatisfied customers.
She says the system provides realistic sensations for 10 feelings.
Softness, fullness, smoothness, hairiness, prickliness, drape, thickness, elasticity, rigidity and warmth are all conveyed using 3D animations.
For example, hairiness shows a close-up image of the garment's surface.
By moving the mouse up and down it, the user can "stroke" the fibres and watch them ripple.
To test thickness a shopper can lift up the edge of a garment and drop it back down.
Elasticity is simulated by "stretching" the garment and watching it return to its original shape.
Using the mouse the images can be rotated and the user can zoom in to get a closer look at necklines, patterns and seams.
Miss Davison watched people shopping to see how they interacted with garments.
She said: "The internet only appeals to two of our five senses - sight and
sound - but clothing requires the sense of touch.
"Almost half of all garments bought online are returned, but less than 3% of items such as CDs, DVDs and
books are sent back."
She said potential customers were deterred by the inability to feel garments.
"In the future I plan to develop the software to include home furnishings such as carpets, curtains and sofas," she added.
The product is being developed with the help of a Department of Trade and Industry grant at Nottingham Trent's enterprise development centre, The Hive.
Miss Davison is in talks with high street chains about the software.
She expects a completed version to be ready next year.