Electrical capacitance tomography (ECT) is an effective technique for elucidating the distribution of dielectric materials inside closed pipes or vessels. This paper describes a virtual electrical capacitance tomography (VECT) system, which can simulate a range of sensor and hardware configurations and material distributions. A selection of popular image reconstruction algorithms has been made available and image error and capacitance error tools enable their performance to be evaluated and compared. Series of frame-by-frame results can be stored for simulating real-time dynamic flows. The system is programmed in Matlab with DOS functions. It is convenient to use and low-cost to operate, providing an effective tool for engineering experiment. © 2005 IOP Publishing Ltd.