View-Master VR review: A great first taste of VR for kids

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Gizmag reviews the Mattel View-Master Virtual Reality(Credit: Simon Crisp/Gizmag)

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The latest tech trends are constantly being adapted for younger users – whether it's tablets, smart watches, or 3D printers. Virtual Reality is no different, with little early adopters also able to get their hands on it in the form of the View-Master VR. But is the viewer any good for kids (or even you)? Gizmag recently took one for a spin as it launched in the UK to find out.

The View-Master VR is a modern VR take on the stereoscopic viewers of the same name (sans the VR) which you probably used as a child, and have been knocking around since the 1930s. But this time it's designed to be used with a smartphone inserted (like other mobile VR experiences) along with educational experience app packs which can come nostalgically styled like the viewer reels from your childhood.

However, because the viewer also meets Google Cardboard VR standards, it can be used by anyone who wants to get an affordable-but-sturdy brush with VR, not just those who want to learn about the Solar System or the Statue of Liberty. Sure, it's no alternative to the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, or even the Samsung Gear VR, but it's not trying to be. It's a VR toy, one which might also get a bit of use from parents after the kids have gone to bed.

At first glance the plastic View-Master VR looks like a Samsung Gear VR Lite, with stylistic nods towards the View-Master of old, such as the bold red color and chunky trigger … and that's before you get to the viewing reels. But this viewer has more in common with Google Cardboard viewers.

Inside it's just two lenses and your phone, without a trackpad or microUSB plug like on the Samsung's headset. However, the Mattel View-Master VR is compatible with a wide range of smartphones. The spring-loaded mount will hold larger phones securely, while an included adapter lets you also use smaller smartphones like an iPhone 5s. This is important as there's a good chance your child will be using it with your smartphone cast-offs.

If you're planning on letting your almost undoubtedly clumsy child slip your latest smartphone in the View-Master VR, you'll be glad to know it feels very solid and safe. There's a lot more protection than your typical Google Cardboard viewer, and there's a wrist strap so that the viewer won't get dropped to the floor when your little one is startled by a lion lurking virtually behind them. The viewer is also held to the eyes, rather than strapped to the head, making it less than ideal for longer sessions.

Given the US$30 price tag, it's not surprising that some of the features of higher-end VR viewers are missing on the View-Master VR. Notably there's no focal diopter or ability to plug headphones in. The latter means that unless you also equip your child with some Bluetooth headphones you'll be subjected to the repetitive sound of the app as they play.

Once you're ready to virtually step into the View-Master VR experiences, there are a couple of ways to do it. This is either by in-app purchase in your iOS or Android app, or via a physical experience pack, which is the option we opted for. Currently three packs are available: Space, Wildlife, and Destinations, each coming with three viewing reels focusing on different sub-categories.

After loading your app of choice, users are instructed to swipe a passcard in the corresponding pack to unlock the experience. You then follow instructions to insert your phone into the viewer and look through it towards one of the included reels. As the app recognizes the reel, augmented reality icons appear above and a push of the trigger lets you enter that experience.

Some people have criticized the use of the experience packs with their passcards and viewer reels as unnecessary, because you can get exactly the same content via in-app purchases. However, we'd disagree: younger users still like having something physical to look at and fiddle with, and most parents will know that giving your child a purely digital treat doesn't quite have the same impact as one they can hold with their hands.

Once in the experience, users hit the trigger to click on floating icons and text to navigate their way around. This allows access to a selection of content, for example in the Savanna reel of the Wildlife pack you can see, elephants, giraffes or lions. Meanwhile the Solar System reel of the Space pack lets you explore different planets and see what it would be like on their surfaces. Parents will also be glad to know there's plenty of educational facts in there too.

My son was the predominant tester of the View-Master VR and other than a very brief dally with a Google Cardboard viewer (which was promptly taken off him a few weeks ago when he spun around so fast my phone flew out) this was his first proper taste of virtual reality. It's safe to say he was impressed, his resulting gasps of "Oh wow" reminded me of my first test of the Oculus Rift a couple of years ago.

Within the experience packs some sections of the content were better received than others, though this could have more to do with his personal interests than the content itself. For example, he loved jumping from planet to plant in the Space pack and looking at 3D images and videos of animals in the Wildlife pack, but wasn't fussed by simply looking up at the Statue of Liberty from a static position.

Even at his young age (still below the 7-13-year-old guide for the View-Master) he was expecting a more immersive and interactive experience. He wanted to move around in the virtual world and could't understand why certain aspects were so limited.

Luckily this is where the Google Cardboard compatibility comes in. I was able to load him up other VR videos and experiences to enjoy, which he did. Indeed some of the free Google Cardboard experiences feel deeper and more accomplished attempts at VR than the View-Master VR experiences, though they do typically lack the educational aspects.

My son particularly liked using the View-Master VR viewer to do things with Google Cardboard like watch 360 degree videos of animals, or walk around landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower. These experiences were closer to what we'd initially expected from the View-Master packs. However, because not all Google Cardboard content is as child friendly as the View-Master stuff you do have to be a lot more careful about what you are letting your child see.

Overall we'd say the View-Master VR is great first taste of VR for the kids, and a not-too-shabby Google Cardboard viewer for you to try VR on the cheap. At £25 (US$30) for the viewer and £8 ($15) per experience pack it's more affordable than you might expect, and comparable to many other tech toys out there.

While the selection and depth of the experience packs is somewhat limited, if they tally with your child's interests, then they'll get plenty of use as kids have an amazing tolerance of repetition if it's not their homework. Even ignoring the experience packs, there's a good argument for getting the View-Master VR as your go-to Google Cardboard viewer, especially if you might be letting the kids loose with it. It's a sturdy and reliable bit of kit which justifies the price increase over the cardboard alternatives.

If you're used to using other VR systems, View-Master VR, like other Google Cardboard setups, will feel basic. The experience is also very dependent on the smartphone you are using. When we tested the View-Master VR with smaller screened phones like the iPhone 5, it was a lot less impressive than when a Samsung Galaxy S6 was in its place.

The biggest reservation we'd have about buying the View-Master VR now is that Mattel has already announced its follow-up, the View-Master DLX, which will launch towards the end of the year. The new viewer will add focal adjustment, enhanced lenses and a headphone connector. But then again it's not available yet, and if your children want a taste of VR now, we all know they won't want an eight-month wait, will they?

You can check out a promo video for the View-Master VR (with some examples of the VR experience) below.

Product page: View-Master VR

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