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The virtual gavel system in action at the Kings College, London test auction.

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The prototype gavel, developed by teams based at King's and the University of Tsukuba in Japan, enables the auctioneer to take bids from the internet as if the participants were actually in the room. The project is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Mr Stones and Mr Allsopp were invited by King's to conduct a mock 20-lot auction before an audience of students who each had a 'virtual' £5000 to spend. A professor (who happens to be a Peter Wilson client) took bids from the telephone while two other participants occupied another room sending in bids via the internet.

Graphics representing remote bidders were projected on a large display along one side of the auction room. This caricature bidder remained static while bidding came from the room and the telephone but would raise a hand when a bid was received from a computer console. At this point the auctioneer would point the gavel at the screen and press a button to accept the bid. The screen changes colour to inform the room that a bid has been taken.

Nick Allsopp described the experience as "rather like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time" but had begun to get the hand of the new device by the time two sessions had concluded.

"With the increasing importance of the internet to live auctions, we are keen to develop technologies that enhance the transparency of electronic bidding and help preserve the integrity and excitement of the auction itself," said Professor Christian Heath.

By Roland Arkell