Mattel View-Master review: Family-friendly augmented and virtual reality wrapped in a retro brand

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The Good The Mattel View-Master is inexpensive and easy to get up and running, plus it looks pretty darn cool. It works with both Android and iPhones.

The Bad The Experience Reels aren't exactly coming thick and fast. It's not designed to work with headphones, which might prove frustrating. And it requires your phone.

The Bottom Line The Mattel View-Master is best viewed as a low-priced "My First Virtual Viewer" for the whole family, if you're OK with a few restrictions.

7.2 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Ecosystem 5
  • Features 5
  • Performance 8
  • Value 9

If you're one of the people who winced when they saw the $600 price tag attached to the Oculus Rift, then the Mattel View-Master might be more your speed.

Yes, we're talking about that View-Master, the stereoscopic image viewers that have been delighting children since 1939, re-imagined for the age of virtual and augmented reality. Mattel has rebooted the brand and created this, a VR accessory for your phone.

VR is available in a wide range of products with a wide range of prices right now. At the low end of the spectrum is Google Cardboard. But you can opt for a sturdier plastic option. The View-Master is a toylike Google Cardboard-compatible VR viewer for phones. And it's a very different product than those old pop-in-a-reel stereoscopic toys. It's not fancy, but it works. And it's built to be kid-friendly.

Dave Cheng/CNET

Just to be clear, like Google Cardboard, Samsung's Gear VR and other similar devices, it's still your phone that does the heavy lifting, in terms of both the screen and the processing power.

Essentially, this makes the View-Master a better quality version of Google Cardboard that you don't need to assemble yourself. For the $30, £23 or AU$50 it'll cost you, that might be well worth the price of admission alone.

Simple setup

The nostalgia doesn't just stop with the design aesthetic. The old-school film reels you'd pop into your View-Master to explore the age of dinosaurs or see what Disney characters have been up to have been replaced by similar looking hard plastic versions. But these aren't popped in the View-Master. You put them on a table and look at them through the View-Master to trigger augmented reality effects.

For the modern experience, you actually buy an Experience Pack, as Mattel calls it, and download an associated app. So if you have the Destinations experience pack, you need to download the 200MB-plus Destinations app.

Fire up the app and it'll get you to scan the Pass Card from the Experience Pack as a sort of proof of purchase. Pop your phone in the View-Master, close it up and you're ready to roll. If I can get the 5.7-inch Nexus 6P to sit in the device, you won't have a problem with the majority of modern phones.

Dave Cheng/CNET

You can then aim the View-Master at the pack's plastic reel and you'll get a little augmented reality pop-up. For the Ellis Island destination reel, for example, it's the Statue of Liberty.

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