Mattel's View-Master virtual reality headset holds promise, but needs work

The View-Master brings back memories of childhood, but the newer VR edition of the toy is rough around the edges

Mattel and Google's View-Master (3)

Mattel and Google's View-Master (3)

As a child, clicking through static images on the classic View-Master toy took me to remote parts of the planet. Now Mattel is bringing the retro toy into the future with the addition of virtual reality, which encourages interaction by bringing images to life.

Mattel is aiming high with the View-Master. It wants kids to take virtual 360-degree tours of cities, see classic sites, go on undersea adventures and even play with dinosaurs. Unfortunately, a hands-on test of this new View-Master left me disappointed.

I tested a cardboard version of View-Master, but the final, commercial version of the product will have a plastic frame.

The frame houses a smartphone, which will transmit bite-sized virtual reality (VR) experiences to the product's viewer. The smartphone gets the experiences either from mobile apps or from stand-alone circular discs developed by Mattel. The discs are supposed to automatically pair up with the smartphone, but it took about two minutes for one of my discs to establish the connection. The headset wasn't always responsive.

The images and video on the discs I tested were often grainy, with a low-resolution feel to them.

One of the discs, a San Francisco neighborhood tour, felt like watching Google's Street View on a computer. The other disc offered a more exciting 360-degree tour of the moon. I moved the headset around to see craters, an astronaut placing a U.S. flag on the surface, and a view of the earth. An icon pointed users to specific objects and experiences.

Clearly, the interactive experience is still under development, and Mattel is planning to build up its database of images, videos and graphics for the headset. The company plans to add short interactive games and more images dating back to 1940, when Mattel's first View-Master was introduced.

The headset will be priced at US$29.99 and is scheduled to ship in the fourth quarter. It will initially support Android smartphones, and later Apple's iPhones. The virtual reality experience on View-Master gets better if a smartphone has a strong graphics processor.

Mattel will make its money through the experience reels, which it will sell for $15 in packs of four.

Mattel developed the headset with Google, which last year launched a low-tech virtual reality kit called Cardboard. Users assemble the Google kit into a headset, insert lenses in the viewfinder slot, and finally, put a smartphone in the front. Google's role will likely grow as it provides content for the View-Master from YouTube, Google Earth and other products via its Cardboard mobile app.

In conclusion, don't expect View-Master to deliver jaw-dropping virtual reality experiences like an Oculus Rift headset. But while the View-Master is rough around the edges, it's inexpensive, and if Mattel can build on the technology to offer stronger virtual reality experiences, the product could become an effective learning tool.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service
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