Get inside video games: It's virtual child's play


June 23, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

"Virtual reality" is actually here.

In what is apparently the nation's first retail-level use of "Wild Palms" technology to entertain the "Barney" set, a Baltimore-area company called Family Funjungle has installed an early version of the "you-are-there" medium in its newly opened family entertainment center in Perry Hall.

Through a device called the InVideo System, children as young as 2 can experience the illusion of flying over the trees, swimming with fish, or standing in a thunderstorm that rains real cats and dogs.

Watch William Hill play a rousing game of "Eat a Bug," and you see a whole new technology of play:

With a grin on his face and a hunter's gleam in his eye, the Bel Air boy leaps for the sky, grabbing a fistful of air while his image on a 120-inch screen seizes a passing fly. Then, with the catlike reflexes of a 10-year-old, he hits the deck, barely escaping the jaws of a voracious spider. It isn't mere video game button-pushing. The kid's getting a workout.

Virtual reality is an interactive digital technology that gives the viewer the feeling of being "inside" a computer-generated environment. Or, as William described it after devouring an impressive 22 virtual flies in a single game, "It seems like you're there, but you're really not."

The system in action at Family Funjungle is a basic, even crude, version of the technology portrayed in science-fiction films. The images are grainy, the graphics are rudimentary and the presentation is two-dimensional rather than three. Even its developer agrees that the first generation of InVideo is to virtual reality what Pong or PacMan were to video game technology.

But remember what that led to -- and how quickly. Within a few years, video games that leave players outside looking in could be as obsolete as manual typewriters.

Real enough for now

Judging by reactions of children at Family Funjungle this week, the first generation technology is real enough for now.

While watching an underwater sequence on the screen, located in a cubicle the size of a child's bedroom, four giggling preschool-age kids made swimming motions as they played a game that let them "pet" passing fish. When another game came on, they gleefully stabbed their fingers into the air to intercept balloons that would explode when they touched the child's projected image. In a more educational game, letters rained down and a child could turn an A into an apple with a "touch."

Codey Michael Rohrbaugh, 4, said he wasn't scared at all. "I liked popping balloons," said the Spring Grove, Pa., youngster.

Sandra Helsel, editor of Virtual Reality Report in Tucson, Ariz., said the children's market offers big opportunities for virtual reality technology.

"Children seem to have a natural acceptance and seem to have no problem getting used to the technology," she said.

As new generations of technology make virtual reality more real, the worldwide virtual reality industry in all its forms is expected to grow from $110 million this year to $504 million in 1997, according to figures compiled by 4th Wave, a high-technology ++ consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

Of that total, more than $200 million will come from entertainment-related business, said John Latta, president of 4th Wave. Other virtual reality applications include flight simulation, surgical training and architectural design.

First commercial customer

Jeffrey Pechter, the 32-year-old president of Family Funjungle, said he decided to become a virtual reality pioneer after seeing the InVideo System on display at a trade show in New Orleans last fall. At the time he was looking for new amusements for Family Funjungle, which was planning a second indoor entertainment center after opening its first at the Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City last year.

InVideo, designed by Dean Friedman of Peekskill, N.Y., had previously been installed in several children's museums in Britain and the United States. The "Eat a Bug" program has also been a feature on the Nickelodeon cable television channel.

Virtual reality is not new. Elements of it have been used in military training and high-tech research for decades. What caught Mr. Pechter's eye in New Orleans was a price tag that made it accessible to a small business -- $25,000 to $35,000 per unit, according to Mr. Friedman.

Family Funjungle, which opened its Perry Hall center in a former grocery store May 29, became Mr. Friedman's first commercial customer. According to several authorities in the field, Mr. Pechter is the first person they have heard of who has installed a virtual reality system in a for-profit children's entertainment business.

"Jeff took a chance. As exciting as this stuff is, it's still a conceptual leap," said Mr. Friedman, a former musician who founded InVideo three years ago.

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