Next year is when we find out whether people will buy high-end virtual reality headsets. But this fall is when we find out whether cheaper ones — like the new $99 Gear VR or the variety of super-simple cardboard designs — can hold their own during the holiday shopping season. This is especially true of the new View-Master, a VR headset created by toy giant Mattel. As its name suggests, the $29.99 View-Master is pitched as a next-generation version of the miniature slide projectors that many of us used as children. In reality, it's a plastic headset compliant with Google Cardboard's standards. We got a first look at it early this year, but only from behind glass.
Now that it's officially shipping, we got to play with the finished product. And if you ignore the attempts to mimic the original View-Master, it's a nice, sturdy way to experience entry-level VR.
The Mattel View-Master hardware is every inch "Google Cardboard for kids," in the best possible way. It's got the thick red plastic of a vintage View-Master on the sides, and instead of the normal Cardboard lever that simulates tapping the screen, there's a chunky orange clicker. The branding is fairly subtle, just a white "M" on the front visor. The hard rubber eyepieces obviously aren't the most ergonomic design, but they're comfortable for the short bursts of use that Mattel imagines. Compared to cardboard and foam, which can collect sweat and grease, they also seem easy to clean. Like many mobile headset cases, the View-Master can fit any smartphone up to 6 inches, using a firm, adjustable plastic clip. And there's a handy wrist strap that can stop a kid from dropping it.
Speaking of straps, the most notable feature of Cardboard-compliant headsets is that you have to hold them up to your face like a pair of binoculars, instead of strapping them on. Sometimes, this is meant as a way to decrease motion sickness by limiting time in the headset. In Mattel's case, it's also a way to reassure parents that their kids won't plug in and suddenly turn into virtual reality zombies. The same rationale seems to be behind a more frustrating choice: You can't use the View-Master with headphones, or adjust the volume without opening it up. Instead, sound gets piped out through tiny speaker grills at the bottom of the headset.
The headset holds up, the View-Master gimmick doesn't
There are plenty of plastic VR phone holders, but some don't include any control system, even the simple single button that Google Cardboard has. The View-Master, by contrast, should work with anything that was made on the Cardboard standard. Which is good, because the actual View-Master-y parts of it — a series of plastic "reels" of images from exotic locations — are an expensive gimmick. By default, the View-Master comes with a single reel of demo content, with three more sets (based around space, world travel, and wildlife) available now and more coming in the future. The reels are designed to look like the little paper disks that older View-Masters used, but they're basically a convoluted menu screen. If you set them flat on the table, launch the related smartphone app, and look through the View-Master, they act as augmented reality markers, bringing up little images that will launch different sections of the experience.
There doesn't seem to be much to the reels besides that, and it's totally possible to download and use the app without them, but you don't save any money — it's $14.99 with or without the physical disks. The apps themselves are a combination of 360-degree photos, rendered models, and flat images projected into the environment. In the wildlife pack, for example, you'll stand in a computer-generated savannah and click to pull up facts about lions or a video clip of a cheetah. In the space pack, you can sit inside a rendering of the Space Shuttle and play simple mini-games. It's not outright bad, but I'm not convinced it's more fun — for adults or kids — than the games and videos that already exist for Google Cardboard.
Mattel was cagey about any of its future plans for virtual reality. It's apparently considering more games for the platform, including ones based on brands like Barbie or Hot Wheels, and it's apparently open to working on virtual reality platforms besides Cardboard. But it's not clear when that might be, or whether the company sees a larger future for virtual reality — one where kids can do more than look around for 15 minutes at a time.
For now, the View-Master is a nice reminder that mobile virtual reality is actually pretty simple. It's not a closed system for Mattel-branded content, and there's nothing that makes it inherently bad for adults, either; it's a piece of plastic that's as flexible as any Google Cardboard design. While it might not be as sophisticated as something like Gear VR, every piece of it is immediately understandable. And ultimately, that might be worth more than seeing facts about animals on a virtual screen.