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Wednesday, May 10, 2000

Panasonic shows off high tech for the kids


By JOSEPH A. LIEBERMAN

What's a kyoiku mama to do?

First, the public schools start eliminating Saturday classes. Then some do-gooders tell us that children require more play time to be creative. Health experts say our progeny need more green parks. But if the kids aren't in cram schools for five hours a day, won't they just be wasting their time with video games?

Now along comes Panasonic Square as downtown Osaka's possible answer to an education mama's dreams . . . at least for one afternoon. Here is a place where the hippest gadgets in pop technology mix with just enough educational insights to keep the kids amused and the parents satisfied. In addition, all labels and directions are printed bilingually (Japanese and English).

Naturally, Panasonic doesn't do too badly in the deal either. Not only is there an admission charge, there is also loads of hands-on corporate publicity to go with it. But in a world where people are happy to wear T-shirts, sneakers and jeans advertising company logos, no one is really going to notice.

Panasonic Square is located in Twin Tower 21, one of the tall buildings of Osaka Business Park, and it is a park of sorts, even if it isn't overladen with green. Moreover, the open and green spaces of Osaka Castle Park are just minutes away, for those willing to exert enough muscle to make that pilgrimage.

Right from the start, the second-floor entrance gate of Panasonic Square gives you a clue that this is a fun but well-governed place. A half-dozen uniformed "tour guides," young women with nonstop smiles wearing bright yellow uniforms, take your cash and send you into a series of open-ended rooms filled with the latest in advanced electronic mechanisms. Some are as familiar as your nearest video arcade, while others are closer to cutting edge.

Of the former, there is an F3 Simulator where kids sit in a life-size race car mockup while they pretend drive through a front screen film of a speed circuit. No spills and chills here, though. The car doesn't even vibrate, so it's safe even for the smallest tots.

Then there is the robot which draws your portrait (for 300 yen) or even etches it upon a rubber stamp (1,000 yen). A small round theater called Adventure Spaceship shows a short 3-D computer graphic film which time-travels back to the age of the dinosaurs. Shades of "Jurassic Park," but Spielberg need not lose any sleep over the competition.

There are a couple of stops, such as a quiz game hostessed by tour guides, where there is a fair semblance of live theater. The majority of exhibits are of the self-learning kind, however, which you may pick and choose at your own pace. There is a stringless laser harp, for example, played by activating its optic sensors, and free make-your-own greeting cards. Further on, hook up to video-phones for cross-room conversations, a fortunetelling computer and an imitation cable car ride through San Francisco.

The thing to keep in mind, however, whenever you come across the been-there, done-that of a karaoke studio, CD-listening booths and Internet-linked computer terminals, is that Panasonic Square is a homage to product showcasing, not a true science museum. There are, nevertheless, lots of nifty little games and booths, including those which offer take-home souvenirs.

Best among the latter are holographic postcards. You and your significant others can take up to six subtly different poses that morph in sequence on the finished photo card. Another type of card plants your face on top of someone else's figure, such as that of a superhero. You can even have a video made of yourself and friends traveling on a flying carpet. Electric fans blow your hair around for more realism, and the blue screen behind you on the studio set becomes a prerecorded adventure flight through exotic lands on the final tape.

In fact, almost all of the half-dozen or so extra-fee items involve various ways to look at yourself. The creators of Panasonic Square obviously knew that we humans desire nothing better from our electronic interfaces than to glimpse yet another view of our own appearance.

Panasonic Square, (06) 6949-2122, is located near Osaka Business Park subway station and JR and Keihan Kyobashi stations. From the latter, follow the overhead skywalk above road traffic about seven minutes to the Twin 21 National Tower Building, 2F. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., every day except for New Year holidays. Admission 500 yen (adults), 400 yen (high school students), 300 yen (junior high and elementary students).


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