Hands-on: New $30 VR View-Master now available

by Ian Hamilton • October 5th, 2015

The new Google Cardboard-compatible Mattel View-Master is hitting stores, offering a $30 viewer that can be used with a wide variety of Android and Apple phones. The viewer pairs with apps that work with Cardboard or Mattel’s own $15 apps to unlock virtual reality and augmented reality experiences.

My wife picked up mine at Target, where she had to explain to the workers what it was and ask them to go into the back of the store to retrieve it.

The side of the box says that it is for ages 7+. From Mattel’s FAQ:

Because of its text-based visuals, View-Master® VR is designed for kids 7 and up. We have worked with an ophthalmologist to ensure that View-Master® VR is optically safe for use by children. As with all screen time, we recommend parents follow pediatric guidelines to determine age appropriate viewing times.

The viewer is a plastic phone holder that fully encloses the phone inside with a latch on top to lock it in place. Though the View-Master hasn’t unlatched yet it doesn’t seem super secure. Even if it did unlatch, the phone is held inside the viewer by a clever mechanism that flexes to hold a variety of phones while still holding each snugly. Also, the quick release latch makes it easy to pop open the viewer to select a new app.

There’s a QR code inside the viewer you can scan with the phone’s camera that will tell Google Cardboard software that it’s a View-Master. There’s also white line so that you can line up your phone with the middle of the viewer.

Press the lever on the side to touch the phone’s screen inside the viewer as a way of selecting or navigating in VR. This is where View-Master shines because I found this interaction to be intuitive and fairly reliable. There are three $15 apps available from View-Master: Space, Wildlife and Destinations. Mattel is planning to release more next year. Solar System

I spent the most time with Space. Inside the app there are different spacecraft you can examine, a star chart and a solar system. Each of these three main activities can be chIMG_7404osen from a main menu and there are things you can interact with inside each of the activities, like a cannonball game that simulates gravity on different planets. Turn your head to aim at targets and pull the lever to shoot. Like the Samsung Gear VR, View-Master is probably best experienced while sitting in a swivel chair.

There’s also an augmented reality mode that sees through the plastic covering of the View-Master. If you point the camera at an “experience reel” a model can be shown atop the reel. If you buy “Experience Packs” in a store rather than paying $15 each for the apps on their own you get “experience reels” that unlock additional augmented reality experiences using the passthrough camera.

IMG_7403

AR as viewed with the sample reel included with the Starter Kit available for $30 from Walmart, Target and Amazon. Additional AR content is unlocked buying the physical “Experience Packs” in stores instead of the standalone apps.

Overall, the View-Master gave me the best iPhone-based VR experience I’ve had. That’s not exactly saying much, however, because an Android-based Gear VR is a far superior experience in comparison. For instance, when I first tried the View-Master I noticed a slight headache after about 15 minutes of use. I realized I had the brightness lowered on my iPhone to save battery life. On Twitter, Bruce Wright said he got a View-Master and reported “Lens focus is wrong on ViewMaster. Images are in focus only if door is opened a quarter inch.”

I can’t say for sure if the headache was related to me being stupid and using the low brightness setting on my iPhone, but in my experience these types of problems don’t happen with the soon-to-be $100 Gear VR, which has a simple ring on the top of the headset to adjust focus and software that takes over control of the phone as it is strapped to my head.

Overall, I found the View-Master to be a solid Cardboard holder when compared to viewers that are actually made of cardboard. The inexpensive price tag and retail availability makes it a tempting purchase as an introduction to VR. That said, in every demo I give of the View-Master I will find myself telling people about the higher quality experiences coming soon just in case they don’t find their minds blown by a Cardboard experience.

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