Look! Up on the screen! It's a galaxy! It's a killer robot! It's . . . VIRTUAL, MAN!

Once the astronauts' toy, virtual reality is now an art, an arcade game and, for some, a humiliation

The place seems amiable enough -- cozily Edwardian, beckoning, a lullaby for the senses. Period photos of adventurers, early editions of Jules Verne and Dorian Gray, a mahogany bar where a fellow serves "smart drinks," heavy on the ginkgo. This is the Explorer's Lounge, the front room of a Virtual World shop in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek. But behind the paneled walls, some pioneering menace is afoot. Five kill-crazy nerdlingers will soon engage in mortal combat, 21st century style, against a tenderfoot with a cunning computer handle: Cyber Rick!

The game is BattleTech, a 10-minute interactive video extravaganza...

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