Virtual future SciFi adventure and other electronically simulated realities can be found at a growing number of virtual reality centers. Their economic viability is not exactly assured, however.

October 01, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

At Starport in Dallas, the adventurous sail on gliders through the Grand Canyon, ride Hovercrafts on Mars, do battle in tanks.

At Dave & Busters in Philadelphia, grown men and women take aim at monsters in subterranean sewers, race in vehicles where they see and feel every curve, stroke golf balls into screens with motion sensors that track drives, hooks and putts on championship courses.

At the Block Party in Indianapolis, aggressive types can box with the best of them, battle 21st-century urban warriors or fly inter-galactic fighter planes.

It's all in cyberspace, a world of virtual reality that immerses the senses in computer-generated, 3-D simulations that have become the centerpiece of a new form of entertainment center sweeping America.

Dubbed "urban entertainment centers" or "urban entertainment destinations," the new playgrounds offer a chance to trade reality for futuristic fantasy -- within the confines of climate-controlled complexes that typically include theme restaurants, upscale night clubs, bars, mega movie complexes or other entertainment.

Though the high-tech computer wizardry has spread to mass audiences only within the past few years, already it has proved an extremely popular diversion in dozens of locations. And it appears likely to grow exponentially in the coming years, industry analysts say.

Urban planners see such entertainment centers as an opportunity to lure visitors back to decaying cities with a successor to the 1980s festival marketplaces. Developers and companies in the burgeoning virtual reality industry look to the centers as potential gold mines and are rushing to capitalize on what some view as an impending revolution in the leisure industry.

And with big-screen TVs, pay-per-view, state-of-the-art sound systems, the Internet and high-tech electronic games increasingly enabling Americans to "cocoon" and amuse themselves at home, many in the entertainment industry hope the centers get people out of the house.

Michael Beyard, senior research director at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, views the trend toward high-tech attractions as a reflection of late 20th-century American society. Leisure time, he says, is at a premium, and cities risk becoming places to work but no longer to play for more and more people.

"In a way, we're all retreating into our little worlds, with suburban hermetically sealed shopping malls and video rooms at home," he said. "The entertainment center is the new frontier in urban entertainment.

"There's a desire among developers and shopping center managers and owners to put some pizazz in their product, so this is a way to put that that pizazz into your development and gain a competitive advantage. People are looking for more fun, ++ more entertainment. People are looking for that new high."

Three major development groups hope to provide it in Baltimore, which almost instantly earned a reputation as a pioneer of modern urban entertainment with construction of Harborplace.

But the city has struggled for five years in search of a major attraction to occupy the neighboring Power Plant. In keeping with the decidedly '90s trend, all three proposals to revive the cavernous brick complex on Pier 4 promise to expand downtown's definition of fun by importing virtual reality.

Like other similar projects elsewhere, all the Power Plant hopefuls offer a playpen not only or even primarily for kids, but for adults -- that part of them that secretly misses the carnival lights, the roller-coaster rides and the sense of wonder of a new, larger-than-life spectacle to savor.

At Dave & Buster's, inside a former warehouse in the shadows of Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Bridge, customers must be 21 to enter, unless accompanied by an adult.

Along with heavy doses of virtual reality and computerized games, the center also includes restaurants, a cashless casino and bars. It's proved a potent combination for the 70,000-square-foot complex, part of a Dallas-based chain of five centers that plans to add 12 more in the United States and Europe.

Since opening 1 1/2 years ago, the business has attracted more than 2,000 customers a day who spend an average of $12 to $14 during 2 1/2 -hour stays.

Tim Welsh, assistant general manager, explains the appeal: "As an adult, you can come in here and lose yourself; you can basically be a kid again. A group of people can come down and really let go and really have a good time."

And they don't even have to make excuses about playing just to amuse the kids.

"Everyone else around you is being a kid too," said Mr. Welsh, "so it's no problem."

Dave & Buster's centers change software to offer different virtual experiences to customers, who don headsets or sit in pods that roll or rumble along with high-speed 3-D films that look like the real thing.

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