High Tech, Finnish Style

In Finland everything is wired for the virtual reality of the 21st century. CBS News Correspondent Richard Roth visited the country to report on what technology promises for the future.

At home outside Helsinki, Risto Linturi is working on the future. But it's not fuel he's been hoarding for the year 2000. It's a stockpile of ideas: a survival skill the Finns learned centuries ago.

If you did not do your best to understand all the technologies that would keep you warm, then you would be dead, Linturi says.

As technology director for the Helsinki phone company, Linturi has a home that's a high-tech castle with a front door that opens when he dials his cell phone. Finland's like that, comfortable at technology's cutting edge, he says.

Its wonders range from cell phones that talk to soda machines to a banking system so totally electronic that no one here uses paper checks. Then there's a cafe with tabletop Internet and another with electronic child minding. Sip a cappuccino while a camera watches the kids; this is a country gone computer crazy.

Time online is free at the local library. Surfing the Web is a national sport. Like education or health care, information access is a service that the government provides.

The next new thing here is a huge building project due to be completed in 2000. A brand new capital city is under construction but without bricks or steel or traffic jams. It's virtually invisible, except in virtual reality.

"There are two Helsinkis; there's the real one and there's the virtual one," explains virtual Helsinki architect Immo Tepperi.

And when the software's ready next year, the lines between the two will fade, as a wired-in public will be able to walk through a digital city that's a copy of the real thing - to shop or sit in on a concert or simply to find a phone number.

"Instead of guessing what's the address of the pharmacy, Internet address, or the telephone number, you just go there. You walk to it," says Tepperi.

In the next century, we could all be navigating virtual cities. The developers say it will be easier than operating a home VCR and better than going out when the weather's bad.

One of the reasons is the climate, says Tepperi. "Who would like to go into downtown Helsinki if you don't have to? It's awful," he says.

Some 500 miles from the Arctic Circle, the residents of Finland's capital have always struggled to manage a harsh winter climate. Next year the computer may start giving them a way to avoid it.

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