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Google’s New Virtual Reality Toy Is Just A Gimmick, For Now

Google and Mattel’s updated View-Master runs the same tech as Google’s Cardboard in a $30 plastic shell.

Google’s New Virtual Reality Toy Is Just A Gimmick, For Now
[Photos: via View-Master]

Today, Google announced a partnership with Mattel to resurrect the toy giant’s iconic stereoscope, the View-Master. The new, virtual reality View-Master, however, is just a plastic shell housing Google’s existing Cardboard virtual reality system–which means it won’t function without a smartphone or the View-Master smartphone app.

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The toy seems to provide something like a stylized, immersive edition of Google Street View. Fire up the View-Master app on your smartphone, slip the phone into the View-Master-like shell, and then dive in face first. Point the goggles at an “experience reel” content disk–modeled to look like the radial View-Master disks of old–and the app launches users into a virtual-reality mockup of the disk’s theme (such San Francisco, the solar system, or dinosaurs).

Google does not yet have a working View-Master to show, but in USA Today‘s video demo of the View-Master, the reporter plays with the View-Master technology on a Cardboard model. This suggests the $30 plastic shell doesn’t add anything to the virtual reality experience other than nostalgia (for the parents, of course).

The View-Master is essentially a smartphone accessory that provides a kid-friendly experience not unlike the original’s gimmicky fun: immersive but only temporarily absorbing. The technology behind the View-Master isn’t progressive so much as repackaged–old Cardboard (and Oculus Rift before it) developments married with Google’s Street View capture.

So why is Mattel selling a shell frame for $30 and three-packs of experience reel disks for $15? After all, getting a Google Cardboard only costs, well, the cardboard, and apps alone could accomplish the back-end virtual reality wizardry. But according to Google Cardboard product director Mike Jayayeri, the point is to cut it up for kids in small chunks. Like you do with their dinner.

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“The whole goal of Cardboard was to make immersive virtual reality experiences as accessible as possible for everyone,” Jazayeri told USA Today. “This allows you to do it in a bite-sized (way). That is the most natural way for people, particularly kids, to experience this technology today.”

Conveniently, these “bite-sized” chunks can be purchased in those $15 packs. It’s unclear how other content will be released: According to USA Today, Mattel is working on including the massive collection of the original View-Master reels, which amount to some 1.5 billion images–including those from brands like Star Wars, Michael Jackson, and KISS.

It may be that Google wants to push its Cardboard technology on kids to sweep them early into the Google fold. Let’s be clear: Getting virtual-reality technology into kids’ hands is a great thing, but this move seems targeted toward nostalgic parents who want to purchase a relic for their kids—kids who already have (admittedly two-dimensional) tablet and smartphone games that are far more interactive than the View-Master’s virtual reality tours.

Where the View-Master’s tech could really shine is in classrooms–imagine exploring science or geography lessons through the virtual reality goggles, for example. Google has previously pulled a come-from-behind victory by repurposing a lackluster product for the educational market. The underpowered Chromebook was mocked after its release, but sales skyrocketed after schools adopted the inexpensive laptop, which is now the best-selling device for K-12 schools in the U.S.

If developers can create innovative educational tools for the View-Master’s immersive design, it could become a children’s product with staying power.

[via The Verge]