View-Master Took Me on a VR Tour of San Francisco

Google and Mattel have teamed up for a virtual reality version of the iconic stereoscope View-Master toy. The 2.0 version replaces static images with fully explorable 3D versions of landmarks, cities and even outer space. I got to sample the $30 View-Master of the future at Toy Fair 2015, and came away excited by its potential for education and play.

Powered by Google's Cardboard VR platform, the final version of the View-Master will house your Android phone within a slick pair of red-and-white goggles that pay homage to the original toy. The prototype I tested used a plain pair of Cardboard glasses with a Nexus 5 as its display. I got a thorough sampling of the interactive activities made possible by this rebooted kid's gadget. 

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Mattel has reimagined the View-Master's iconic image reels, which are now circular pieces of plastic that activate various virtual worlds. When looking down on a reel titled "San Francisco" while wearing the goggles, 3D images for several landmarks, such as Alcatraz Prison and the Golden Gate Bridge, appeared on top of it. After aiming my cursor to my destination of choice and pulling down on the headset's slider, I felt a quick rumble and was quickly transported.

Exploring these locations with View-Master felt like a Google Maps Street View that I could control with my head. The goggles responded accurately to my motions, providing a full 360-degree view complete with interactive icons. Some of these icons provided historical information on each landmark, while others would transport me to a new area, such as an individual Alcatraz cell, or a more elevated view of the Golden Gate.

A look at the augmented reality capabilities of the new View-Master reels.

A look at the augmented reality capabilities of the new View-Master reels.

I also sampled reels titled "Dinosaur Adventure" and "Outer Space," which used 3D-rendered images of dinosaurs and planets instead of photographs. When exploring the moon, I discovered several reel-shaped icons that, when activated, bring up static, stereoscopic images that hark back to the View-Masters of old.

The only thing that occasionally broke my virtual reality immersion with View-Master is the small strip of white at the bottom of each environment, though you'll need to look down into that white area in order to switch locations.

After spending some time with the modernized View-Master, I immediately envisioned a classroom in which children are learning history facts via virtual reality instead of using a textbook. While we don't know exactly which Android phones will work with the headset, View-Master ($30 with one reel, $15 for extra reel packs) also serves as an affordable alternative to Samsung's $200 Gear VR, which is dependent on the Galaxy Note 4 smartphone.

We look forward to spending more time touring landmarks, hanging out with dinosaurs and walking the moon when View-Master arrives this fall.

Mike Andronico is an Associate Editor at Tom's Guide. Follow Mike @MikeAndronico and on Google+. Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+