ViewMaster VR Viewer – Review

It’s a techy review – so over to Dave to get his geek on! 

Virtual Reality is the future. Or, at least that’s what many big players in the tech industry are pushing as the ‘Next Big Thing’.  If you pay attention, there is always a ‘Next Big Thing’.  Some of which go on to become the last over hyped thing! If you remember the nineties you may recall that Virtual Reality (VR) was around back then too.  It didn’t stick however, possibly due to the technology just not being ready for the mainstream.

Today is another day though, and View Master has a product that is designed to educate young minds using the wonders of VR!  The View Master VR Viewer is a headset that aims to introduce the user to a number of places they might not be able to visit, and teach them something about those locations.  Basically you hold the headset up to your eyes and it shows you the world.  Just not the world that you are actually stood in!  It attempts this feat with the help of your smartphone.  I think everyone is aware that smartphones are becoming more and more powerful all the time.  Higher resolution screens allow you to fit more detailed images on screen and the sensors within your smartphone let it know when it is moving around and which direction it is facing.  This sounds like a match made in heaven and could bring VR into your home for a knock down price.  It’s no wonder then that big names like Google and Samsung are getting in on the act.

My initial thoughts on the VR Viewer were good.  It’s well built with solid mechanisms and it looks alright if you’re into ski goggles!  There is a seal that sits around your eyes to block out the light of the real world so as to make the experience more immersive.  The seal is made from a rubbery material which feels fine against your face and does a good job of cutting out that pesky light.  On the right hand side of the unit is a lever, which you can press to choose various options within the VR experience.  It is your only means of interacting with your environment.  Luckily it feels solid so it shouldn’t break from normal use.

Once you’ve opened up the front of the headset you see the bracket which holds your phone.  Now, phones come in all shapes and sizes so the bracket is moveable.  That being said it’s not infinitely adjustable so you have a maximum range of screen sizes that work.  On the side of the box it says that phones with 5″ screens are ideal.  However, given that iPhones are extremely popular, it provides some packing pieces in the box so that your iPhone 5/5s will work with the headset even though their screens are a bit smaller at 4.5″.  Also on the side of the box is a list of devices that have been tested and work properly with the headset.  The list is far from exhaustive, then again there are a lot of  Android phones.  So it also says that other Android phones that are not listed may work.  This is important because in my experience, limited though it is, the phone you use makes a huge difference.  I have a number of phones and we tried a few of them.  The results were quite varied.

The first phone I tried was an ASUS Zenfone 5.  This phone has a 5″ screen, so exactly what the packaging suggested, but it wasn’t listed as working on the side of the box.  This phone allowed me to download the app from the Play Store and start using it, but crashed every time you got a minute into the VR part of the app.  No good there then.

The second phone I tried was the LG G3.  This has a 5.5″ screen and was specifically listed on the box as being a phone that worked.  Luckily it worked just fine.  Also due to the higher resolution of the screen the visuals looked worlds better than what was seen on the ASUS phone.

The third phone I tried was the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, my new phone!  Woohoo!  This phone isn’t listed on the box.  However it is quite new and last year’s model (Galaxy S6) was listed as working.  This phone worked, and looked, the best out of all of them.  The Play Store showed all three experiences as available to download and they all worked just fine.

If you’ll permit me to show my age for a moment, when I was a kid ViewMaster used to make those ‘Viewers’ which looked a bit like a cross between a camera and a pair of binoculars.  You’d put a ‘reel’ in the ‘Viewer’ and press a button.  As you pressed the button the ‘reel’ would turn round and you would see a different picture every time you pressed the button.  Up to a point.  This unit is the modern equivalent of that product.  I assume it’s to induce nostalgia in parents the the packs you buy have ‘reels’ in them that are required for each VR experience, because they don’t actually do anything really.  It would work just fine without them. 

So with this new generation of ‘Viewers’ you download an app through your app store that correlates with the ‘Experience Pack’ that you’ve bought.  Careful though, because the apps are a bit large, around 350ish Mb, so you don’t want to be downloading them on your data plan.  Once downloaded, you start the app on your phone and it asks you for your ‘Boarding Pass’.  This is found in the ‘Experience Pack’ that you bought.  As far as I can tell the pack works to unlock the information you’ve downloaded in the app.  You don’t actually get anything necessary from the pack information wise.  This system seems a little limiting to me.  As it means you have to buy the ‘Experience Pack’ from a physical shop, or buy it online and wait for it to be delivered, and have it in front of you, before you can use the app!  If you just paid for the app that you need to download anyway, that would allow more people to access it on a whim rather than having to organise things in advance.  This set-up seems an odd one to me.  But what do I know!

So, you hold the ‘Boarding Pass’ that comes in the ‘Experience Pack’ over the phone and it unlocks the app.  Now I found this to be fiddly at times.  Sometimes taking five or six goes before my phone would register the the pass was there.  Once it’s unlocked it then asks you if you have the viewing reels.  You choose yes or no and then it tells you to put your phone in the headset.  I never chose that I didn’t have the reel in my possession, because I did, but I assume if you choose ‘No’ it’ll just play the experience you are in anyway.  I hope so anyway, otherwise if you lost one of the reels you’d be scuppered!

When it asks you to put your phone in the viewer your phones screen is split in two.  With a line down the centre.  This line is used to align your phone with the centre of the bracket.  The bracket also has a line in the centre to aid this.  Once you’ve put your phone in place you close the headset and stick it on your face.

Now the reason that the phones screen splits in two is so that one image is for your left eye and one for your right.  The slight difference in each image is what fools you into believing that a pair of 2D images are 3D shapes and things.  It’s very clever.  At this point it might become apparent as to why the phone you use makes such a difference.  As your eyes are literally an inch away from the screen, the possibility of seeing the pixels that make up the image exists.  A low resolution screen with bigger pixels would make everything you are looking at seem blocky.  The higher the resolution the smaller the pixels.  The less likely you are to be able to see them.  So high resolution screens make for the best experience in my view.

So, once you’ve loaded the app and used the ‘Boarding Pass’ then put your phone in the headset it asks you to look at a reel.  When you look at the reel it begins to load the experience you’ve bought.  In the case of the ‘Destinations‘ experience, one of the places you can visit is Tower Bridge in London.  Imagine you were stood in the street by the side of the Thames looking at Tower Bridge.  The experience starts and there’s Tower Bridge.  Look to the left and you can see the Thames and the buildings across the river.  Look behind you and you can see the buildings which are in the street next to Tower Bridge.  As you look around there are a few areas which glow when you look at them.  Press the lever on the side of the headset whilst looking at a glowing area and some information pops up about whatever it is you are looking at.  Sounds are played through the phones speaker so you can hear the sound of London cabbies complaining about Uber drivers and someone saying something about “Apples and Pears”. I may have made that last bit up.

That’s about it really.  I may have been expecting too much from the experience and when you take into account the cost, £10 for each pack, it’s probably not that bad, but I did expect to be able to move around a bit more.  You can’t move or interact with anything aside from the glowing areas.

Once you’re done with whatever it is you are looking at you can get back to the Menu by looking where your feet should be.  There you will find a number of options, one of which is getting back to the Main Menu.  Press the lever while looking at the Menu button and Hey Presto!  You are back at the Menu.  You can then choose different locations to view.

My personal favourite experience was the Space one. That is in part because I love Space related things.  It’s hugely fascinating for me, but also because I found having a huge rotating model of Saturn hanging in front of my eyes to be fascinating.  The other planets in the solar system were there too.  There’s something magical about watching a moon pop out from behind the planet you are looking at and then being able to to view that moon and learn information about it.  I really enjoyed that one.  It was Ben’s favourite too.

The main problem for me with this kit is that I don’t see any replay value in it.  Once you’ve been through and viewed everything that there is in a given pack, the only time you would want to see it again is if you needed some of the information that is presented within it.  However if you needed the information it’s be far quicker to Google it!   You’d need your phone for both and one is exponentially quicker than the other. 

It’s a shame really because I think it has potential.  The headset isn’t overly expensive.  The visuals are good, so long as you use a phone with a decent screen, and the immersion can be impressive.  However I’ve never picked it up again after using it for the review and Ben’s never asked to use it again either.  It needs games, or experiences which are more interactive than clicking on something and reading a pop up.  It feels underutilised as a product and as such I can’t recommend it unless you are desperate to try VR on a budget.

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