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Browse London's West End - From Home

Going shopping in London is set to become a whole new experience, with a "virtual West End" being created online.

'Near London' will allow online consumers to wander between stores and make purchases from shop windows.

Represented by small beams of light, customers can interact with their friends via a Facebook application and 'jump' to different parts of London.

They will soon be able to walk inside stores and select and buy goods.Developers Near have rejected accusations this is just another form of Second Life. "We deliberately don't call it a virtual world," founder Alex Wrottesley. "This is the real world, seen through a city browser.

"Second Life was incredibly powerful, but this is something different. If that was the id, we want to be the ego."

One significant difference from previous virtual realities is the lack of avatars, the online identities generated by computer users. Mr Wrottesley said their research shows people do not necessarily want to make a statement about who they are. "This is a more anonymous experience," he said. "It is free to customers and they can wander in and out.

"They can choose to interact with friends through Facebook, or not." Previously an exhibition producer and brand expert, 33-year-old Mr Wrottesley had the idea for Near three years ago and remains convinced of its value."We have a boring way of accessing information on computers at the moment," he said. "This technology has not been exploited - it is kind of Google Earth plus.

"I expect it to be particularly popular with young women who are much more technology savvy than previously."

But apart from the challenge from competitors such as Google, Near faces the more pressing difficulty of trying to convince consumers the site can work. Although shoppers in the future may be able to pop in and out of stores, stop off at the National Gallery and browse interactive Tube and bus timetables - they are currently limited to window shopping along three streets.

There are no Christmas lights on the Oxford Street of Near, and it seems oddly haunting without the typical chaotic pushing and shoving for a place on the pavement.

While Mr Wrottesley's goal is to create a fully interactive version of Milan, New York, Tokyo and beyond, his success will depend on whether a virtual shopping experience can ever truly match the buzz that enthusiatic shoppers get from the real thing.