Many of us grew up with the classic View-Master, the bright red toy shaped vaguely like a pair of binoculars that would allow you to look at stereoscopic images by flipping the lever on the side. Of course, that was already a reworking of a much older curiosity.
Mattel has updated the product for 2015 by turning it into a $29.99 virtual reality device that's compatible with most modern phones.
Your children need VR too, right?
Polygon was sent a unit to try out, and after spending a few days with the product I can say with no reservations that the way the hardware delivers VR is ... strange.
I may have been skeptical about the pricing of the official content at first — the viewer and all three content packs will cost you $75 in total — as well as sniffing a bit at VR experiences that may not be as striking as what is available on other portable devices, but my kid loved it. "I'm in Africa!" he shouted happily, looking around. "There's an elephant!" He's enamored with the device, and I think most kids will be, what follows are my criticisms as an adult.
The View-Master is stuck between trying to be an inexpensive VR device and aping the physical construction of the classic toy. Everyone understands how apps work on phones, and I would say that if you would consider buying a VR device for a child your kids know how they work as well, but the toy forces you to unlock the content by scanning a physical card with your phone, and then looking at plastic discs that look like the classic image discs of the original toy.
While you and I may get a kick out of this throwback to the classic technology, children may be confused about why a phone needs to look at a plastic disc to work. It's needlessly complicated. You can bypass this process by buying each content pack directly without picking up the physical boxes. Then again, the $15 asking price begins to look really steep when there's no physical product to go with it, even if that product is more or less vestigial.
This weird case of chasing the future while looking backwards extends to the content itself. The Wildlife package allows you to look at far-off animals and then zoom in on still images or video, but why can't we get closer to the animals themselves? The Destinations pack does a much better job, allowing you to look around 360 degree images of each location while reading interesting facts about what's around you.
Oddly enough the $15 content packs rarely compete favorably with what's available on the upcoming $99 Gear VR, but the View-Master hardware is much easier for kids to use and supports nearly every phone on the market. The View-Master also works perfectly as a Google Cardboard device, but be aware that adult heads wearing glasses may not fit into the rubber view piece. Still, the ability to use existing Cardboard applications with your child will go a long way to extending the life of the device, and this technology will likely be impressive to people who are getting their first taste of VR; I'm a hard critic to impress in this regard.
This is a toy that wants to straddle the line between the past and the future
This is a toy that wants to straddle the line between the past and the future and ends up stumbling a bit at both, but I can't argue with the delight it brought my kids. It's a fun, inviting toy in general, although the hoops you must jump through to unlock the original content can be maddening. It's an odd situation where a company wants to sell a car by modeling after a horse and buggy, but there's something to be said for making people comfortable with new technology by modeling it after something they already know and likely love.
As a $30 VR device though? This isn't bad at all, and it's somewhat impressive that we've gone from "VR may happen" to "kids can have a pretty good VR experience of their own." Mattel needs to loosen its grip on physical content, but this is a pretty good first step at VR for kids.