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Hands-on with Google and Mattel's View-Master of the future

As if VR needed to be more retro

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Google and Mattel today announced a View-Master for a new generation that swaps out the classic toy's slide film for an Android smartphone. Based on Google's Cardboard VR viewer, the new View-Master is made of plastic and will sell for $29.99 when it hits shelves this fall. One "reel" of content is included with the device and Mattel says that additional reels will be available for $14.99 per four pack. That's right, even though the new View-Master relies on a smartphone and Mattel's app, the company is still pushing a physical reel for new content.

The actual hardware, at this point, seems to just be a red-and-orange shell. Instead of Google's side magnet, it uses a retro plastic lever that supposedly mimics clicks through capacitive touch instead, and it will adjust to fit "any" phone; at launch, the app will be supported on Android, and it will appear on iOS sometime later.

We couldn't actually use the device or take it apart, so we're not sure how any of that works. But Mattel was giving demos of the app and plastic "reels" on Google Cardboard. It's a strange hybrid of a system, combining 360-degree photos, computer-animated environments, textual overlays, and tiny square original View-Master images. The reels are standard augmented reality fiduciaries, which bring up virtual icons when you look through the headset and get close enough to them. Click on the icon with Google Cardboard's magnetic switch, and you'll enter a specific environment; we were able to see a handful of landmarks in San Francisco, a render of the Moon, and some CG dinosaurs.

The virtual environments are supposed to give kids the chance to explore places they'll never be, like prehistoric Earth or outer space. Frankly, they're terrible. They look like crude video games, and the informative captions don't do much to help. Photos are a different story. The draw of the original View-Master, for me, was that I was being offered a chance to see things that had actually happened: it was originally a complement to the World's Fair, after all, a gathering of all Earth's cultures into one place. There was a weird exoticism to a lot of the original View-Master reels — they were like having a relative with endless photos of landmarks you would never get to visit.

The photos are nice, the graphics are terrible

On Cardboard, the spherical pictures of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge manage to pull at least some of that feeling into the digital age, with the added eeriness of virtual reality. Instead of cycling through a carousel, you focus on slide-reel-themed dots in the image, which let you switch between pictures and pull up captions. This is an approach that other VR "tourism" experiences have taken, but Mattel has also added red icons that link to actual View-Master slides. They're probably more interesting to people with View-Master nostalgia than they will be to actual children, but the juxtaposition is striking: where the VR is designed to put you "into" the image, the original slides are composed and a little removed from reality.

Besides the images themselves, one of the best things about the old View-Master was that you could see the reel's tiny negatives magically transformed into a giant picture. The "reels" in its VR replacement are just plastic, and there's no real connection between them and the View-Master itself. If you don't own them, you can just download the same content through Mattel's app and launch it manually. But there's another kind of unveiling involved in Google Cardboard. Mobile VR lays bare how simple a trick virtual reality really is; what seems like magic is really just a duplicated image seen through some lenses. If virtual reality sticks around, it's the kind of revelation that kids will be having for years to come, and View-Master is as good a place as any to get it.

Mattel and Google View-Master photos