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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

And in a business built by fertile imaginations, there's always another experience to dream up and re-create. Among the possible coming attractions being bandied about: a virtual whitewater rafting ride. (No swimsuits needed, of course.)

Jillian's Boston, which opened in July near Fenway Park, also has become a big draw, catering primarily to adults seeking an alternative to more traditional night life.

Baseball fans inspired by Jose Canseco can cross the street and do their best to emulate him in a simulated game. Or they can board a motion simulator and bounce off the bumpers inside a virtual pinball machine, sample other virtual reality experiences from racing to soccer, sip cocktails, shoot pool or perhaps look for prospective mates.

"It's something different; it's just not your typical bar scene," said Jim Brown, general manager. "People get tired of the club scene. This is a nicer alternative, a place you can bring a date."

OC The initial popularity of such attractions notwithstanding, how

ever, analysts warn that it's too early to predict how well they'll do over the long haul.

Developers will have to work hard to provide enough diversity that customers keep coming back, lest the virtual worlds become a passing fad. A shakeout period to weed out quick-buck seekers and others who deliver more hype than thrills seems inevitable, as do some costly failures. Competition is keen, and growing more so.

"There is incredible potential out there if these products are imaginatively designed and are grounded in very carefully thought-out economics and finance," said the Urban Land Institute's Mr. Beyard. "They can't be just wizardry and nothing else. That's one of the important rules. They have to be repeatable. They can't have people who come once."

If there's trepidation, though, it's not evident among companies rushing headlong into the next generation of entertainment centers as if embracing the modern-day equivalent of the advent of movie theaters.

Viacom Inc., a New York-based entertainment giant, is testing the Block Party centers in Albuquerque and Indianapolis. Sony Corp. is considering opening as many as 25 urban entertainment centers. Walt Disney Co., a pioneer in the world of make-believe, and MCA are preparing to spend billions to expand their presence.

Sega, the video games company, is planning two 60,000-square-foot indoor entertainment centers featuring all sorts of virtual reality attractions in still-unspecified cities. United Artists, whose Starport in Dallas opened last month with virtual reality, laser tag and movie theaters, just opened a second location in Indianapolis and plans others.

With technology and ideas sprouting at a ferocious pace, the futuristic entertainment trend considered mere fantasy just a few years ago has moved to the forefront not only in the leisure industry but among sociologists and planners as well.

Last spring, for example, the Urban Land Institute built a major New York conference around "developing entertainment destination projects." The institute has scheduled a similar gathering on the same topic this month in Beverly Hills, responding to a seemingly insatiable appetite for the latest.

After all, anybody with a big stake in the business of creating places to play must know the competition -- and perhaps puzzle over just what entertainment is and will become. The definition keeps changing, as always. But now America has upped the ante to the point that reality alone or a reasonable facsimile -- remember movies? -- is no longer enough.

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