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

The View-Master is reborn as a VR phone accessory, but it's not necessarily the best choice.

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Nic Healey
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Nic Healey

Senior Editor / Australia

Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.

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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.

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7.2

Mattel View-Master

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.

Yes, we're talking about thatView-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.

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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.

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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.

Once you're in the app proper, it's a full VR-style experience, encouraging you to look around in glorious 360-degree freedom. Certain areas will be highlighted, letting you use the orange trigger on the side of the device to interact, moving you on to new sights.

Fun, with a few flaws

It's simple, but it's genuinely fun. The trigger might be the only interface option (nothing like the touchpad on the Gear VR, for example) but it's satisfyingly tactile.

Sadly, of the three currently available Experience Packs, the Wildlife one -- a co-production with National Geographic -- is probably the least interesting. Space, on the other hand, is amazing. Destinations is great too, even if the limited choices of Ellis Island, the Tower of London and Chichen Itza seem sublimely arbitrary.

You can also use the View-Master to look at any Google Cardboard-compatible phone apps, such as Google's Cardboard app, or other VR apps on Google Play and the App Store. There's even a little QR code for you to scan to let the app content work better with the View-Master. But it's at this point that Mattel's design works against it a little. The closed casing doesn't allow for access to your phone's headphone jack, so you're only getting sound through the phone's speakers. It might be fine for kids, but you're going to be really unhappy in crowded places.

Another big drawback to the View-Master design is its tight-fitting rubber eyepiece. If you have large glasses, you might not be able fit it over your frames. Some of my colleagues found it unusable because of that.

There are other problems, too. More than a few times the View-Master wouldn't recognise the reel I was focusing on, kicking me back to a menu rather than sending me onward and upward to the virtual world.

The Wildlife app in particular took so long to load I thought it had crashed, leaving me holding the View-Master to my face, staring at a black screen and thinking "ze goggles do nothing" -- patience is key here. But kids might not have so much patience.

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Don't lose the Reels or the Pass Cards.

Dave Cheng/CNET

You're also always holding the View-Master: there's no strap to anchor it to you or your child's head, and there more than a little light leakage from the sides, which I imagine would be more noticeable for little ones. It means you don't have to worry as much about your kid getting sucked into hours of VR, but it's tiring and kills some of the immersive effect for longer videos and games.

But you're also getting an easy-to-use and fun VR experience for a tiny cost. This isn't the ultimate dream VR headset: it's for kids, remember? It's cheap. It's simple. Don't expect much. It's certainly something kids could love, and with a bit of luck, maybe even learn something while using it. It's also compatible with an incredibly fast-growing world of VR phone apps. And for that, the Mattel View-Master is a downright bargain.

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7.2

Mattel View-Master

Score Breakdown

Design 7Ecosystem 5Features 5Performance 8Value 9