A CONTROVERSIAL triad tamagotchi due out next month has found eager buyers among experts on substance abuse as far away as Finland. The European Union-funded Prevnet Project, tasked to study drug and alcohol addiction and prevention, considers the tamagotchi electronic pets a potential new source of dependence. Project co-ordinator and sociologist Teuvo Peltoniemi, based in Finland, warned that tamagotchi toys were the first wave of mass-produced virtual reality devices addicting children and even adults worldwide. He plans to use the toys to illustrate how a user can develop uncontrollable emotional involvement. 'The triad tamagotchi and the original Japanese toy are an ideal example of the possible threat of a virtual world becoming, in the future, a real dependence problem needing treatment,' Dr Peltoniemi said. 'Virtual reality is a new drug and tamagotchis are the first wave. It's not just some fad that will go away.' Finland had recently caught tamagotchi fever, with children and adults playing the toys everywhere from subways to restaurants, he said. Paul Chu, the administrative manager of King's Fountain, the Hong Kong company producing the triad tamagotchi, said he would consider Dr Peltoniemi's request if supply was available. The new virtual triad has been redesigned to 'eat' ice-cream and hamburgers instead of consuming beer and cigarettes and knifing gangsters, following a public outcry in June. Tamagotchis are pocket-sized electronic toys requiring the owner to raise a young pet to maturity. If he or she is careless, the pet dies. Currently the human-computer interface is confined to sight and sound, but the next generation is expected to generate textile sensations through the use of a sensory suit. Since Japanese toy maker Bandai put out the electronic pet last November, 15 million have been sold worldwide.