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VALLEY WEEKEND | VIDEO GAMES

Media Center Pushes the Play to New Levels

Slam.site and V-REC offer memorable virtual reality experiences, including flight simulation. But it's not cheap.

September 05, 1996|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I've been ruined.

How can I go back to my puny game rigs with their tiny displays and their tinny speakers after spending an afternoon at the electronic pleasure palace taking shape at Burbank's Media City Center?

This place, quite simply, is pure heaven for anyone who likes a good video game. And even folks normally put off by digital drop kicks and video evisceration should be wowed by the offerings at slam.site and V-REC, both of which boast virtual experiences well worth a try.

The only problem is that both places are pretty spendy and it's not too hard to run through $50 or more in a single extended visit. For those without a lot of green to burn, slam.site offers short bursts of action for about the price of a movie. But the true E-ticket attraction is V-REC's F-16 flight simulator.

I started my afternoon at slam.site, a place that makes playing video games a social event by allowing gamers to play titles such as Duke Nukem 3D and Quake on a network against others. Manager John Phillips said part of the draw is the unique chance for customers to feel a part of society even as they enjoy a traditionally solitary pursuit.

"It's the human interaction," Phillips said. "If you're, like, a troll and just want to sit at home, then I guess we don't have much to offer."

But even trolls might appreciate that each of slam.site's stations comes equipped with a Pentium 100 machine and a raft of cool games pre-installed. So for $11 an hour, players with weak sauce home rigs can enjoy their favorite games at decent speeds.

Nice as all that is, the real draws of slam.site are the VR helmets, which also are hooked up to the network. For $6 per quarter-hour, customers can suit up in VFX1 helmets for a Duke Nukem 3D death match. When it comes to male bonding, there's nothing quite like hurling concussion grenades at a buddy.

Not as immersing as some VR helmets, the VFX1 units do a nice enough job. The inherent delays in VR technology sometimes have a disconcerting effect, though, and might make some people sick. Imagine turning your head and then having to wait a fraction of a second for your eyes to catch up. That's what it's like.

For those with the stomach, it's great fun--particularly with the stereo headphones turned up to ear-splitting levels. A nice added touch are the sub woofers mounted to the floor, which re-create the feel of explosions.

Getting used to the real world again is tough--even after just 15 minutes in a helmet. But reality can quickly be forgotten across the mall at V-REC, a high-class arcade for adults.

For $45 an hour, folks who just can't get enough of "Top Gun" can suit up for a simulation that is as real as it gets for civilians. Every non-classified detail of an F-16 cockpit has been re-created in the simulator, which boasts hydraulic motion capable of pulling two Gs.

For the first time, I understand what it means to find peace through superior firepower. It's the kind of butt-kicking, G-pulling transcendental peace found at the controls of a multimillion-dollar aircraft that's armed to the teeth.

No sane person would actually let me fly a real F-16, but V-REC manager Art Portnoff helped me learn the subtleties of virtual flight. Although I had to satisfy myself on a less-powerful training model, it was about all I could handle.

All of the controls are designed to respond precisely as they would on a real F-16, so they are very, very sensitive. I spent a lot of time upside down and a fair amount of time plummeting to Earth. Three giant screens display landscapes that gobble up most of a pilot's peripheral vision, and the cockpit rocks and jerks in tandem with the screens.

The whole sensation of movement is phenomenal. Maybe it's too real because I started to feel a little queasy after some particularly rambunctious aerobatics. Once players master the flight controls, they will graduate to the full-size, hydraulic-powered simulators, which feature better graphics and more motion. Eventually, V-REC plans to install seven more simulators, which will be networked together to offer the option of dogfights.

Perhaps the worst thing about spending too much time at slam.site and V-REC is that eventually we all have to return home and face our comparatively pathetic PCs and game machines. It's a lot like hopping back on a skateboard after taking Dad's hot rod out for a spin.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games regularly. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Or send e-mail to Aaron.Curtiss@latimes.com.

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