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Virtual reality as a group experience

The half-dozen visitors are standing in a small room furnished only with a railing, a computer and a projector, then the lights dim, and they are traveling down a superhighway while majestic buildings and mountains hurtle past. The navigator steers the group into a long, white tunnel _ and back into reality.

The 10-minute trip comes courtesy of a contraption that its inventors, David Bennett and Ray Idaszak, are touting as the next generation of virtual reality, the VisionDome. Inside the portable dome, 3-D images played on a screen can be experienced by up to a dozen people at once without goggles, helmets or glasses.

After four years of development, VisionDomes went on sale in June for about $280,000 apiece.

"This allows groups of people to interact with groups of people in a virtual reality environment," Bennett said. "I like to think of it as being inside a 15-foot virtual reality helmet."

Bennett said he has inquiries about the domes from a wide variety of businesses, including car makers that want teams of engineers to work on designs, marketing firms that want to demonstrate new products and pharmaceutical companies that want to let scientists explore compounds.

"We thought, in science, everything is worked on by teams these days," Bennett said. "This would be perfect for them."

On the more frivolous side, the inventors have heard from computer game designers, entertainment companies and even a restaurant wondering if the domes could be adapted to create certain scenes for diners.

They are working on a smaller version about 6 feet tall for a home entertainment system they hope to have ready in about five years.

The development is intriguing because it deals with one of the major drawbacks of most systems: Only one person can use it at a time. Most virtual reality systems require you to place a helmet or goggles over your eyes and grab a joystick or wear special gloves. A computer then projects images that you control by moving your head or hands.

"One of the problems with virtual reality is how you display images to other users," said Mary Whitton, as assistant professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You get a much stronger feeling of being immersed in an environment with a dome."

Anyone expecting to step onto a holodeck like the one on Star Trek will be sorely disappointed. The graphics and sensations are nowhere near that real.

The dome set up for the demonstration is about 15 feet high and 16 feet in diameter. Twelve people can squeeze inside, where they will see a white screen that curves across half the dome.

The first demo was a promotional film for British Telecom, which developed the sound system for the domes. When the computer image floats under a bridge, a viewer can look up and watch it pass.