NETWORK `True virtual reality' comes to town with SegaWorld. By Morgan Holt
Anyone crossing London's Chelsea Bridge early last week must have noticed a Harrier Jump Jet hanging from a crane. If not they should visit an optician: the Harrier was painted in yellow and black stripes to make it look like a vertical take-off tiger.

This was of course a public relations stunt - though the Harrier will have a real role as a centrepiece of SegaWorld, a new seven-floor multimedia "experience" close to Piccadilly Circus. Modelled on Tokyo's Joypolis, SegaWorld has cost pounds 45m; several hundred workmen are working around the clock to get it ready for an August opening.

If you haven't heard about SegaWorld, that is because Sega has not started telling you yet. Hanging the Harrier from a crane used for bungee-jumping is just the first of several stunts intended to make Europe's largest theme park stick in your mind. How can a giant theme park be jammed into a 100,000 sq ft building? Easy - use computer power and virtual reality to create an impression of infinite space.

Based around $1bn worth of research into arcade technology, Sega's aim is to provide as many stimuli as you can fit into one immersive environment. Virtual reality here will be more than simply wearing a pair of goggles and gawping. The idea is "being there" in every sense. So, for example, the motor racing area has cars crashed into the walls, a tarmac track and the smell of burning rubber.

The Harrier will be hung from the ceiling of SegaWorld's "flight deck". Around it, every conceivable flight game will be stationed in an area filled with the scream of jets and the whistle of air. One floor down is Aquaplanet, one of the most adventurous immersion experiences yet built. Two floors had to be knocked through in order to get in the 40ft screen that projects a three-dimensional adventure to participants sitting on motion seats - chairs which move and shake to simulate the thrills and spills of being underwater as you chase away monsters.

The best ride of all, though, is the refurbished AS-1. Located on the Space Mission deck, it throws eight people left and right as they chase baddies, clumsily navigated by the ship's inexperienced pilot, who bumps his way around the graphical city. It is only a shame that safety requirements and olfactory technology have not reached a level where the smell of sulphur and twisted metal can fill the cabin, adding that extra level of authenticity to the ride.

Also on the Space Mission level is what the purists would call "true virtual reality" - that is, after a pep-talk full of urgent imperatives and weighty responsibility, you finally get to wear goggles. Suited and booted in your cybersuit, a two-person monorail shuttles you out to the play area, and while one person drives, the other shoots anything that moves.

The Carnival or Sports Hall is for the less bloodthirsty members of the family. In this virtual Coney Island, you wander amidst palm trees and gigantic fish with the chance to play fishing games or stomp on spiders. Well, it can't be completely bloodless: this is the Nineties after all.

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