In developing Metreon, an entertainment complex that opened June 16 in downtown San Francisco, Sony Development, a division of Sony Corp. of America, wanted to create a project that would be like nothing else yet produced. Further blurring the boundaries between entertainment, retail and dining, the project was conceived as an almost seamless blend of uses. In addition, the $85 million complex is perhaps the world's largest marketing tool: Virtually every component makes use of Sony technology.

The 350,00 sq. ft., five-story project - developed by Millennium Corp. of New York and WDG Ventures of San Francisco and master leased to Sony - has drawn large crowds since the beginning. On opening day, traffic was at a near standstill within a quarter-mile radius of the site. City officials say no private building project has drawn so many visitors on opening day. Only special events such as the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, the annual Chinese New Year celebration or major league sports playoffs have drawn larger crowds.

Three weeks later, the crowds were still coming. On a Tuesday afternoon in early July, Metreon was swarming with people of all ages. Timothy Rodrigues, the project's assistant director of communications, cannot provide specific numbers, but he says visitor counts are ahead of projections despite the fact that a few elements remain unopened.

The crowds do not surprise Kari Novatney, a Sony vice president and Metreon general manager. As she puts it, "The attractions created for Metreon are like nothing else. They have the visual impact of Hollywood set designs combined with elements from world-class theme parks."

The project - whose name comes from the Greek words "metro," for city, and "odeon," for performance hall - consists of about 100,000 sq. ft. of retail space, 50,000 sq. ft. of restaurants, 45,000 sq. ft. of proprietary interactive installations, a 15-screen Sony Theatres cinema and two Sony IMAX theaters, one showing 3D.

The retail segment consists of only five major stores, along with an area off the lobby featuring stalls by Bay Area retailers. The major stores - Sony Style, PlayStation, Microsoft SF, Discovery Channel Store: Destination San Francisco, and Hear Music - are either new concepts or one of only two or three in existence. In addition, each of the installations has a retail section within it devoted to mostly original merchandise created specifically to match the installation's theme.

According to Rodrigues, the stores are as much showcases to introduce people to the products as they are retail outlets. In line with this, a significant percentage of space is given to demonstration areas where customers can try out the merchandise.

PlayStation, for example, has some three dozen video stations where visitors can use - for free - any of the products sold in the store. In Hear Music, approximately 80% of the CDs are available for listening at one of a few dozen listening stations. Customers merely swipe a CD's bar code over a reading device, put on the earphones and listen to as much music as they choose. Again, there is no charge.

The restaurants, two of which are located within the installations, are also largely unique. Only Starbucks is part of a national chain; Just Desserts, a pastry cafe, is part of a small San Francisco chain. A section of five small restaurants called Taste of San Francisco is run entirely by highly regarded local restaurateurs with only one or two other outlets. A white-tablecloth restaurant, Montage, is the first independent endeavor by a local chef who has cooked in several of the city's best eateries.

The restaurants are also highly diverse. Taste of San Francisco is geared to people on the go, including those who are looking to grab a quick, but quality, inexpensive bite before or after a movie. The cuisine ranges from Californian to Chinese to Japanese to Mexican, representing the Bay Area's melting pot culture. Jillian's, which features a wall of TVs showing ESPN and other sports networks, becomes a nightclub after 10 p.m. Montage targets the destination diner accustomed to San Francisco's tradition of fine dining. Night Kitchen, another restaurant, takes its name from a children's book and is aimed at families with kids.

Toyland and fairyland The installations are equally distinctive and diverse. Ironically, for a project devoted to up-to-date technology, all were inspired by works in a medium that has not been cutting-edge since the 1500s: the printed book. The installations and their inspirations are: Where the Wild Things Are (15,000 sq. ft.), based on the children's book of the same name by Maurice Sendak; The Way Things Work (14,000 sq. ft.), based on the book by David Macaulay; and Airtight Garage (15,000 sq. ft.), taken from a graphic science fiction novel by French illustrator Jean Moebius Giraud.

Each has a different target audience and operates in a different manner. Where the Wild Things Are, developed for Sony by Cinnabar, a Burbank-based entertainment construction and special effects company, is intended for children. While it may use high-tech mechanics to operate many of the "wild things," there is very little difference between this exhibit and the various children's toylands and fairylands that have been around for at least a century: puppets with mouths that open and eyes that roll; animals that dr op from the ceiling; levers that allow kids to make the creatures do what they want them to; a swinging rope bridge; and a slide that lets kids drop through a tree trunk into another realm.

The Way Things Work, created by Pasadena-based Studio Avanti Inc., makes considerably more use of technology. It features a lecture by a comic robot, followed by a guided tour of a 3D multimedia exhibit explaining the workings of many common devices. This, too, is heavily oriented to kids, but the information is also of interest to teen-agers and adults.

Airtight Garage, also by Studio Avanti, is a dark and slightly otherworldly chamber featuring interactive video games, most based on characters from the original book. One section, however, features virtual bowling, with images of streets, canyons or a ship's deck - complete with moving obstacles - substituting for a standard alley. Although most of the space is occupied by standard arcade stations, players can enter an inner chamber where they each get their own enclosed space pod that rocks, lifts and shimmies in response to the action of the game being played.

Surprisingly, there are no virtual reality stations, where players don special viewing helmets to give them a sense of being inside the computer screen. Nor are there any truly new game technologies - the games may be novel, but the manner of play is fairly conventional and unadventurous by today's standards. Nonetheless, the installation appears able to draw crowds.

The first two installations have a set entry price, but the cost for the third is based on time spent at each game. Where the Wild Things Are will remain unchanged, but new games and elements will frequently be introduced to the other two.

The evolution of Metreon Metreon has an unusually long history. Part of the largest project ever attempted by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, it is the principal commercial anchor of Yerba Buena Gardens, a three-block complex of cultural and recreational uses focused on the city's Moscone Convention Center.

The project's neighbors are: Center for the Performing Arts; Center for the Visual Arts; Museum of Modern Art; and Children's Center, which includes an ice rink, carousel and interactive museum known as Zeum. Three additional cultural facilities - Jewish Museum, Mexican Museum and Museum of African-American History - are still in development.

In addition, there are four hotels, three built and one in development, as well as the 40-story Millennium tower, now in construction, which will include Four Seasons Hotel, an 80,000 sq. ft. health club, a retail galleria and 12 floors of luxury condominiums.

The Redevelopment Agency conceived the Yerba Buena project in the 1970s as a means to reinvigorate San Francisco's Skid Row. The agency leveled about nine city blocks and began rebuilding them with mid-rise housing and office buildings.

Yerba Buena Gardens, conceived as the centerpiece of the redevelopment area, was much slower to get off the ground. The convention center opened in the early '80s and quickly proved inadequate, so the city began an underground expansion into the block set for the cultural and retail projects. The re-engineering necessary to build atop a vast exhibition hall necessitated further delay and also escalated development costs.

In the end, the delay probably proved beneficial. The original scheme envisioned a fairly conventional multi-level shopping center. Had the project gone forward on schedule, the city likely would have gotten a rather drab box similar to the majority of urban malls built in the mid-'80s.

Fortunately, by the time the revised infrastructure was ready, the real estate downturn had stopped most development, and when the market improved, retail thinking had undergone a dramatic shift.

Thus, when the Redevelopment Agency selected the Millennium-WDG team to build the project, neither party had much interest in a conventional mall. Millennium, however, had built an entertainment center for Sony in New York, and both companies were curious to see how far they could push the envelope. The city approved the concept, and out of this curiosity, Metreon was born.

Showcase for Sony With more emphasis on doing than on buying, Metreon is more an amusement park than a shopping center. In fact, it violates one of retail's fundamental rules: The project makes it possible for visitors to spend the entire day playing video games and listening to music without spending a dime. Not that many visitors are likely to do that. At the minimum, most will likely buy at least a cup of coffee, and if Sony's projections prove correct, most will buy considerably more.

To make spending easier, Sony has developed Metreon Cards. Customers put a credit card, bank card or cash into vending machines throughout the building that issue cards, in any amount, that can be used for all Metreon stores, restaurants and attractions. Every expenditure is deducted from the encoded value. Rodrigues says the company foresees people buying the cards as gifts for friends and relatives or buying them for themselves for use on repeated visits.

But for Sony Entertainment, making money on Metreon is not the main issue, say company officials. Though it stands to produce tidy returns based on projections of 5 million visitors a year (half local and half tourists), the primary goal is creating new consumer and commercial markets for its parent company's products. Sony technology runs virtually everything in the building, excluding the electrical and HVAC systems.

All the installations employ technology made by the Japanese corporation. The Discovery Channel store and Jillian's feature 100-foot Sony video walls, and Jillian's DJ music system is also by Sony. Hear Music uses Sony sound systems and headphones. PlayStation has Sony game stations and sells Sony computer games. The movies show on Sony projection systems, and Sony equipment is behind the IMAX cinematography. Sony technology is even behind the nighttime lighting effects and signage on the Metreon's facade. And, of course, Sony Style sells Sony electronics products.

According to John K. MacLeod, Sony senior vice president of development and operations for Metreon, the use of Sony technology enables continuous updating and changes. "This season's visitors will find something new next season," he says.

Novatney, Metreon's manager, asserts the project will become San Francisco's newest landmark. While few local observers believe it will achieve the status of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ferry Building, cable cars or TransAmerica pyramid, it seems likely to remain a big draw for tourists and locals alike - at least until something bigger and better comes along.