Out of This World, Virtually : Digital Simulations Thrill Game Players in Old Pasadena


The lobby of Virtual World was packed with people waiting to dive into cyberspace when the 47-year-old electrical engineer and his son returned from their third mission.

They had been at the controls of towering robotic warriors and racing spacecraft, Old Pasadena’s newest diversion in the cutting-edge field of virtual reality.

“It immerses you in the experience,” Tom Cravens, the West Hills engineer, said on a recent Saturday night. “It’s a good ride.”


Virtual World, billed as the “world’s first digital theme park,” is definitely more Pac-Man than the “virtual” library entered by Michael Douglas in “Disclosure.” In essence, it’s an upscale--and expensive--video arcade that relies heavily on atmosphere and has players competing against each other or working in teams.

Virtual reality is the name for computer technology that strives to make you feel drawn into the experience, as though you are really there. The technology came out of military research labs, used primarily in training simulators for fighter pilots, tank crews and the like.

The technology also holds promise for other practical applications, including architectural design and remote battlefield surgery, in which a doctor would control a robotic device performing an operation miles away.

At Virtual World, however, the reality falls short of the moniker; this is a rudimentary form of virtual reality, with what are basically big video games operated with complex controls. Still, so far it seems to be a big hit in Old Pasadena, where reservations often are required to climb into a Virtual World pod on a Friday or Saturday night.

The operation, which opened in mid-November, is the newest of nine outlets opened by Virtual World Entertainment, and the first in the Los Angeles area.

Another is to open in Costa Mesa in the spring, said Tim Disney, chairman of the Burbank company and the late Walt Disney’s grandnephew.


Citing the proprietary interests of his privately held company, Disney declined to release attendance figures at the Pasadena attraction, but he said it is “doing really well. It’s shaping up to be our best store.”

The other U.S. outlets are in San Diego and Walnut Creek, Calif., Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Las Vegas. There also are centers in Japan and Australia.

Patrons walk up a flight of steps and into a lobby filled with bubbling beakers and artifacts. Role-playing is a big part of creating atmosphere.

Employees wear lab coats and encourage patrons to choose and use names such as Starman, Archangel and Warlock.

Although the computer technology employed by Virtual World uses cartoon-like images and might not wow a scientist at nearby Caltech, it is a step up from the usual fare at video arcades.

Unlike standard video games, Virtual World’s setup allows as many as eight players to climb into fully enclosed “pods” and play in the same game.


“It’s not really about the technology,” Disney said. “The entertainment experience has to do with the suspension of disbelief. Virtual World is an explorers’ club.”

Travelers choose from two games: Battletech, in which pilots control robot fighting machines that blast each other with machine guns, lasers and missiles; or Red Planet, in which participants pilot spaceships in a race on Mars.

After orientation, explorers walk down a space-age, coldly industrial corridor to a group of pods. Each pod is equipped with a pilot’s seat, video screen, a joy stick and myriad of buttons.

Expert players punch buttons and manipulate controls constantly to control their robots or spacecraft. Bass speakers in the pods produce a rattling that helps simulate a hit from a weapon or a crash.

To keep the cost down, Virtual World decided against using sophisticated helmets equipped with video goggles and data gloves, Disney said. Motion platforms, which could move the pods up and down to add more realism, also were discounted as too expensive.

Nevertheless, “inter-dimensional” travel is not cheap. One ride, which includes 10 minutes in a pod and about 15 minutes of introduction and review, costs $7 to $9, depending on the day of the week.


But Virtual World apparently has found an audience. More than 700 people have moved through the Old Pasadena pods in a single day, a spokeswoman said. And a couple of customers already have logged more than 100 missions since opening day.

Belden Ibanez, 28, of Torrance, recently completed his fifth mission and said he would return for more.

“I like the competition and the graphics,” he said.

Virtual World sells trimmings as well to appeal to the enthusiastic and trendy crowd, including manuals that tell how to get the most out of a pod; leather pilot’s jackets, and cappuccino at the so-called Explorer’s Lounge.

Virtual World Entertainment and its affiliates are hard at work spinning other commercial webs as well.

An animated television show, “Battletech,” recently hit the airwaves, and a line of Battletech toys were recently released, Disney said. A Battletech movie and a comic book are in the works, and similar products will be produced for Red Planet, he said.