Granada's Coronation Street is helpingto give children a glimpse of life in 2056. Maureen McTaggart logs on to the action. It's every child's dream to be allowed to stay off school. How many times have mothers heard their offspring say, "Can I stay home this morning, I feel sick?"
Well, soon it will be possible for youngsters to be at school while not at school. Sounds crazy but in fact it's the future, courtesy of the Internet. And children spending a day at Granada's Studios Tour exhibition in Manchester cannot fail to be enthralled by the vision of the hi-tech virtual classroom of the 21st century. Everything the teacher can tell you and more, all in the comfort of your front room.
Futurevision opened in May and shows how, within a few years, it will be possible for children - even those in remote areas - to be linked to the Net for courses.
Because the exhibition is run by Granada Television, it is linked to Coronation Street, the world's longest-running soap opera. Fans of the 30-year-old programme can wallow in nostalgia as they examine Hilda Ogden's "murial" while looking forward to how the home and life in the future will be.
Although it is the year 2056, little seems to have changed in Hilda and Stan Ogden's front room. The sofa is still in front of the telly, next to the fire place with Hilda's famous mural above, but at the touch of a button the mural springs to life, giving the Ogden household access to hundreds of channels of entertainment and information, and, of course, the Internet.
However, according to Maurice Kelly, deputy director of Granada Entertainments and Hotels, and the person who developed the idea of Futurevision, the object of the exhibit is not to give Street fans a science-fiction future, but to provide a risk-free environment for people of all ages to investigate new technology. "This is an exhibition that talks about technology in a non-technical way," he says. "It is not a trade show where someone is hovering over your shoulder trying to sell computers."
Even so, the show is based on Granada's 40 years in television. Visitors are shown around by a funky 24-year-old cyberguide from the year 2056 called @.net (pronounced Annette). She is played on screens around the exhibit by Caroline Tudor, presenter of Wired on Channel 4.
Virtual reality is the name of the game at this perception of the future and huge screens throw the visitor into the action. The exhibition starts with the origins of TV with its first monochrome images, and moves through the advent of colour, international multi-channel satellite and cable, home computers, digital "wide screen" television and the multi-media PCTV.
Maurice Kelly stresses that Granada was not content to reflect the here and now or wallow in the nostalgia of favourite programmes from yesteryear. He says: "We wanted to provide an exciting glimpse of future technological reality and debunk the mystique of the Net. If you think the Superhighway is an upgrade for the M25, or the Internet is a style in women's tights, come to Futurevision for a welcome to high technology."
For those visitors unfamiliar with phrases like "surfing the Net" or "logging on", an Internet cafe which, Maurice Kelly feels, "wouldn't intimidate your granny", is included in the exhibition.
"Four computer terminals are permanently connected to the Web, but will have a trackerball rather than a keyboard and mouse to make things easier for the over-thirties. But keyboards and mouse are concealed under flaps for use by school parties of children, who can use computers almost before they can write these days," he says.
Bearing in mind the hysteria about exposing children to pornographic and explicit sites on the Web (although these make up less than 10 per cent of the material out there and are not easily stumbled upon), filters are employed to deny children access. "The Web is a wonderful place for children, but some will make finding explicit sites their on-line mission, so we control what they can access and staff are always on hand to keep an eye on them," says Maurice Kelly.
For Pounds 7.99 school parties will get an organised educational day, tours of the site and use of the classroom and theatre. Education packs for key stages 2 and 3, with questions to test how much information children have picked up during the tour, are also available. Teachers can attend pre-visit sessions to help structure their school visit.
Other exhibits that make up the Pounds 2 million presentation, whose sponsors include ICL, Barclays, IDG Media and Granada TV Rentals, show how computers will change the way we work. A pair of videophones for video-conferencing are available for children to try out with their friend across the room. Shopaholics are taught how to shop till they drop from their armchairs, "virtually" trying on clothes before buying, and booking holidays on the Net using an electronic charge card.
If that isn't relaxing enough, the family of the future can tune into Spider, the monster audio system described as the ultimate in high fidelity.
Tim Sibthorp from Partnership for Learning Development, co-developers of the education packs, is a strong believer in the way Futurevision gives all children access to new technology. He says: "We can't have a system where some children have access and some don't. Futurevision is not perfect but it helps to make some headway towards confirming that technology needs to be a tool to empower human beings not disenfranchise them."
The Granada Studios Tour costs Pounds 12.99 for adults, Pounds 8.99 for children, and Pounds 7.99 for pre-arranged school visits. Details: Granada Studios Tour, Water Street, Manchester M60 9EA. Tel: 0161 832 4999