A View-Master for virtual reality: Hands-on with Mattel's new AR, VR phone toy

/ Updated: November 16, 2015 5:00 PM PST

Mattel has relaunched View-Master, but as a virtual reality and augmented-reality phone toy.

First announced at an event in New York City in February, the new View-Master is a collaboration between Mattel and Google, whose virtual reality Cardboard app has enabled cheap do-it-yourself accessories to turn any Android phone into a mini-VR viewer. Mattel's plastic toy is like a more durable, plastic version of Google Cardboard, designed entirely for kids...but grown-ups will get a kick out of it too. It's in stores in time for Christmas (due in Australia on November 23 and in the UK in 2016), and the most brilliant part is it'll only cost $30 (AU$50, no details as yet on UK pricing).

New View-Master, reborn as a phone accessory toy. Scott Stein/CNET

You'll probably already recognise the new View-Master from the classic 3D stereoscopic picture viewer from your childhood. Many people had even said Google Cardboard looked a bit like a View-Master. So it isn't a huge surprise that Mattel added Google Cardboard VR capabilities to create a View-Master for the next generation.

The new View-Master keeps the classic shape (complete with a functional click button on the side) but adds Oculus Rift-like lenses and an inner plastic housing for a smartphone. Mattel says it's designed to fit the largest existing phones, and will even work with the iPhone 6 Plus and Nexus 6. A capacitive-touch side lever is used to "click" through scenes or into virtual environments, like the magnetized side switch on Google's Cardboard viewers.

The View-Master will fit most phones, according to Mattel: iPhone and Android alike. Scott Stein/CNET

Mattel's headset is designed with Google and Android in mind, but at launch is intended to work on "nearly all platforms," which includes iOS. That means dedicated Mattel apps which interface with the View-Master, but Google's Cardboard and Cardboard-ready apps -- many of which already exist on iOS, like VRSE -- will work too.

Mattel is planning to use View-Master not just for VR, but also for AR. Little plastic reels that look like the old cardboard ones are really just flat coasters this time around, now with images on top which the View-Master reads and turns into pop-up augmented-reality models on your table, desktop or wherever else you place it. Multiple View-Masters could use one reel to access content if put down on a table, unlike the old pop-in reels. This type of augmented-reality tech has already existed for years in many apps and on some children's toys like the Nintendo 3DS (with its AR cards) and PlayStation Vita, but mixing it into a VR headset is a novel idea.

Scott Stein/CNET

While the View-Master comes with its own demo reel to give you a taste of the VR content available, you'll need to buy additional Experience Packs at $15 each (AU$19, no UK pricing as yet) to get the most out of your headset. The Space Experience Pack gives you a Solar System fly-through, Wildlife lets you skip from the Amazon to the Savanna and Destinations lets you explore places like the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Each Experience Pack requires a different app download, and at around the 300MB mark, it's probably worth waiting until you're on Wi-Fi to start downloading.

The Experience Packs include three reels each, to give you a taste of different 3D environments. You need to use the cardboard Pass Card inside the box to unlock the content -- a bit of a buggy process that took several attempts for us. But once this is done, slide your smartphone inside the headset, open your chosen View-Master app and aim the phone at the reel to see an AR animation to kick things off.

Aiming the headset at one of the Space reels, a 3D sun appears above the disc sitting on the table. With a click of the side button, we're transported into space, hovering above a 3D model of the solar system. From here, the View-Master tracks your head movements, letting you aim and click to explore different planets orbiting around the sun. You can pull up quick facts about Pluto or click to rotate Mercury around, before aiming back at the sun to take you back to your original view. There are even mini games to teach you about gravity (shooting soccer balls into space is borderline educational, but fun nonetheless).

The Destinations reels use photo panoramas to give you an up-close look at famous landmarks, rather than the 3D models you get in Space. Once again, hovering over a point of interest and clicking the button on the side will bring pop-up facts and history. To exit any of the virtual panoramas, you look down and click on the side...or, remove the View-Master from your face.

The "reels" don't actually go in the View-Master, they simply sit on your table. Scott Stein/CNET

There's no strap to keep the View-Master on: This is a hold-to-your-face toy, much like older View-Masters and Google Cardboard. Mattel has promised that the tech has already been vetted by pediatric ophthalmologists, and is meant for children ages seven and up in short, bite-sized sessions.

If you're donating your phone to the kids to play with this one, you'll also want to keep the charger handy. Even a short session will take a toll on your battery and a longer session will leave you with a nicely warmed smartphone.

The View-Master may work with other toys, too, like other app-ified toys in the past, but for now it's really a fancier plastic Google Cardboard viewer, with additional Mattel support. That's not a bad thing at all. With a sub-$50 price tag, this is a pretty awesome little stocking-stuffer idea, and a fun phone toy. Just keep in mind that if you give this to your kid, it won't work without a phone popped into it.

While VR has copped its share of criticism for offering little more than a fun parlour trick of 3D video, it's nice to see the technology trickling down into toys that you can actually buy for the kids. And with an educational element thrown into the mix, parents now have an excuse to have a crack at VR when the kids aren't looking.

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