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VALLEY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE

Playing To Win

Media City Center hopes to lure shoppers with new high-tech offerings. Five tenants offer cyber-gadgetry from virtual reality helmets to Internet browsing.

September 05, 1996|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the bottom floor of a Burbank mall, between a sporting goods store and a hat vendor, an experiment is underway. It is an attempt to reshape the grand American tradition of shopping.

The five newest tenants at Media City Center are peddling high-tech entertainment, offering shoppers a chance to sit down at a computer terminal and navigate the Internet. Or strap on virtual reality helmets. Or hone their carrier landings in jet simulators.

With malls across the country troubled by lackluster business, Media City Center is at the forefront of a campaign to use entertainment--be it cinema complexes, themed restaurants or, most recently, cyber-gadgetry--as a drawing card.

"This is a blast," said Dominic Infanger, 19, of Burbank, who visited one of the new storefronts on a recent morning to wage war on a computer monitor. "I don't own a computer. This is the only way I can get the advantage of these games."

Were it not for the lure of a PC battle, Infanger might not have ventured into the mall on a warm summer morning. Though that makes him the sort of customer that the new stores are supposed to attract, it also makes him something of a question mark: Will game players and Internet surfers, once lured inside, spend their cash in retail stores as well?

"We don't know yet," said Daniel Millman, the mall's general manager. "But we do know that people are spending less and less time in shopping malls and making fewer trips. We have to find ways to prolong those shopping trips."

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Toward that end, Millman has gathered a handful of businesses that specialize in technology.

* Virtual Cine Plex offers the widest range of experiences. Its WebSite Cafe, scheduled to open this month, will combine food, drink and scattered computer terminals for browsing on the Internet. The Virtual Library, an appropriately windowless room, provides access for researching reports and school projects.

If all this sounds a little too serious, the adjacent PC Game Room vibrates with colors and sounds. Players can choose from a dozen games, including the warlike Command & Conquer and NBA Live '96. Networking allows them to play with or against each other.

Rental costs range from $5 to $10 an hour.

* At slam.site, the players are part of the entertainment. Standing on podiums just inside the plate-glass windows, they twist and turn, their heads encased in black plastic contraptions.

"People pass by and see the helmets . . . and they are immediately drawn to that," said John Phillips, the store's manager.

The virtual reality helmets allow players to chase villains through three-dimensional environments. Again, there are a variety of games to choose from and networked play.

The cost is $6 for 10 to 15 minutes of play.

* Once completed, V-REC promises to offer even more visceral thrills. Its two large spaces will accommodate eight jet simulators. So far, only one has been installed.

With each tilt of the joystick, the full-scale cockpit jolts and sways on hydraulic legs. A variety of scenarios play across surrounding screens. Available missions include carrier launchings and desert dogfights.

V-REC is also planning to install four race-car simulators.

Rates for the jet simulators range from $10 for 10 minutes to $45 per hour. The race simulators will cost slightly less.

* HoloZ Laser Tag is the most conventional of the newcomers. Like other laser tag arcades, it allows teams of players to don light-sensitive gear and hunt each other through fog-shrouded mazes.

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Unlike other venues, HoloZ has hologram screens situated throughout its mazes. Not only can the three-dimensional monsters be shot, but they can also shoot back at live players.

Groups of 10 to 15 people can blast their way through a 25-minute adventure for $7 per person.

* An Iwerks ride simulation theater will house an attraction much like the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. Thirty customers will buckle themselves into a motion simulator that bumps and rattles its way through various travels.

The theater will show four five-minute adventures. The cost will be about $5 per show, said Vito Sanzone, Iwerks' vice president of marketing. The theater is scheduled to open in mid-November.

By that time, all the mall's new entertainment venues should be fully operational. And although some of them currently offer traditional arcade games, those machines will eventually be phased out.

Millman said the success of this experiment depends on offering the latest in high-tech equipment.

"It's a very challenging road to take," the general manager said. "These tenants have to stay on the cutting edge.

"Now you don't just come here to buy socks or shoes or a dress," he said. "We have all these other offerings. We're trying to expand the definition of a mall."

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