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VALLEY WEEKEND

A Taste for the Net

Cyber cafes may differ in decor, but they're similar in concept: a meeting of the minds with coffee, a muffin and more thrown in.

August 15, 1996|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A visitor from Indiana checks on her e-mail, while a college student researches the latest data on the rain forest. She's drinking a cafe latte, he's munching on a bagel. At another station, a customer navigates the Internet while his salad wilts. It's a typical day at a cyber cafe, one of more than 400 that have been sprouting up around the world, from the Valley to Paris and Bangkok.

What isn't typical yet is the cyber cafe concept itself. From rudimentary to high tech, the cafes run the gamut from glitz to grunge, from your basic coffeehouse equipped with one or two online computers to full-service restaurants where you can arrange audiovisual tele-conferencing with a business associate in London.

The decor may be vintage thrift store or decorator chic, but access to the Internet along with food and drink is the common thread. So what's luring people of all ages to surf the net in these public places?

"Try-before-you-buy is the reason a lot of people come in. There's so much technology out there, people don't have the time or money to check it all out. That's what we offer," said Tomas Wise, co-owner of New York's Cyber Cafe Inc. The company holds the only official trademark on the Cyber Cafe name, which has since gone generic.

Located in Manhattan's media center, which Wise laughingly refers to as Silicon Alley, the cafe caters to a professional clientele that includes hardware and software developers. Consequently, his upscale operation has the fastest and latest equipment.

There are experts on staff to service, advise and train people. The T1 line, the fastest available at the moment, can accommodate 100 computers at a time, although there are only nine on site right now.

A client with a portable computer and an Internet card can plug into one of the cafe's portable jacks, have a T1 at their disposal and download right on to their own computer. Is the high-tech expense worth it? Wise believes it is.

"The history of cafes has been as places to meet your friends, communicate, read your papers, write and correspond," he said. "The idea is to revolutionize cafes as communications change and people communicate in different ways."

A far cry from the days of the neighborhood diner with mini jukeboxes at each table, cyber cafes seem to attract people who seek a connection to the world at their fingertips and a desire for a sense of community in this technological age.

In our own backyard, there's Industry Cyber Cafe located just below Universal City, plus such coffeehouses as Horse Shoe Cafe in Sherman Oaks and Ground Zero in Burbank. And for the ultimate multimedia blowout, there is the Media Center in Burbank.

At the high-tech end is Industry Cyber Cafe, where a dark maze of intertwining rooms includes posters, movie rentals, a library and a couple of corner computer booths that remind you of church confessionals.

There are also fax and copy machines, and an array of legal software, forms and contracts. When the monitor begins to look fuzzy, you can wander over to the pool table and play against yourself. No charge.

Connection to the Internet is $5 an hour, $8.50 if you want to get on America Online. One wall posts the week's nightly schedule including Monday's Cyber Night, where computer professionals and hobbyists network. On other dates there are workshops for writers and actors, an open-mike night, comedy night and live bands.

"We call ourselves the ultimate entertainment-industry resource center because that's what we are," said Matthew Barasch, entertainment attorney and owner.

"We're not just a cyber cafe, we're a cyber cafe for the entertainment industry. We have every single thing in this place under one roof that the aspiring actor, writer, producer or director would need to make it."

Barasch said that a continual stream of requests for legal advice and a growing desire to get out of law motivated him to come up with a new way to make a living. Because most of his friends are actors, he said, the idea of an entertainment-oriented cafe made perfect sense.

"I knew there was no way I could have a cafe in this day and age without making it a cyber cafe, so that's how it came about," said Barasch, who opened the cafe last September. His goal was to give people low-cost legal services, a convenient place to get coffee, video rentals, access to the Internet and e-mail, tutoring and desktop publishing.

He even offers an on-site TV show filmed every morning from 9 to 12, called "You're on the Air." Broadcast through public access television, the program is designed to give actors their own reel, using a different host each day. Barasch said he started it as a publicity gimmick to lure customers, and it has become one of the more popular features, along with the scanner and graphics.

But it's the ability to get on the Industry's Web page, with some help from Bill Phillips, resident Web master, that is a major attraction for entertainment industry hopefuls.

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