On Dec. 1, Walmart stores will begin stocking the new View-Master, completing a national retail rollout that Mattel began several weeks back.
For those (under 30) people who don't instantly recognize the name, View-Master is an iconic toy from the predigital era, and it's one that Mattel has devoted considerable time and resources to redesign and reissue for a 21st-century audience.
Equipped with a smartphone, an app and View-Master's lightweight plastic viewer, users will be able to "travel" to far-flung locations (space, famous cities, below the ocean, etc.)—all for $29.99.
Affordable, attainable virtual reality has been a buzzworthy topic ever since Google debuted its Cardboard viewer last year. But what makes the new View-Master significant is its target audience. For a change, this VR gadget isn't aimed at grownup tech fans.
"We're the first company making this for an age 7-plus audience," said Aslan Appleman, Mattel's product lead on the View-Master project. "We made it kid friendly and mom approved. It's the first foray into virtual reality for kids."
As the holiday shopping season kicks off, observers are of varying opinions about the toy's prospects—and getting past many parents' unease with letting their kids plunge into a virtual-reality world is among Mattel's challenges. But whether or not the View-Master becomes one of this year's must-have toys, it's surely among the most interesting: a 77-year-old gadget that's been given a new lease on life through a combination of science, timing and luck.
Here's how it happened.
When Google debuted its Cardboard viewer in June 2014—proving that $17 worth of plastic lenses and brown paper could be made into a plausible VR device—the tech giant's stated aim was "to encourage developers to build the next generation of immersive digital experiences and make them available to everyone."
Among those who took notice was Richard Dickson, Mattel's chief operating officer, who realized that one of his company's heritage toys was already an analog precursor to the technology that Google was promoting. The original View-Master, which debuted at the 1939 World's Fair, had held generations of children in thrall by giving them 3-D views of exotic places through a handheld stereoscopic viewer that worked with interchangeable picture disks. As Appleman tells it, when Dickson got his hands on Google's Cardboard, he thought, "this is View-Master. This the next evolution of what we've been doing for decades."
Mattel invited Google to its corporate campus and found that many of Google's own product developers had themselves been fans of View-Master when they were kids. Using Google's VR platform was a "no brainer," as Appleman puts it, but Mattel figured it could build on Cardboard's technology by tossing out the actual cardboard. By redesigning View-Master's lightweight and durable plastic viewer—and harnessing the recognition power of the View-Master brand name—the toy maker saw a strategy for recreating its own classic toy and bringing VR to a grade-school audience.
That hasn't been tried before. Companies adopting Google's VR ecosystem in the wake of the Cardboard unveiling have clearly had adults in mind. These include GoPro, which announced in May that it had partnered with Google to create a virtual-reality recorder. In September, Marriott launched something called "VRoom Service," a Samsung-equipped viewer with headphones that allows guests to experience three "holistic and experiential" 3-D videos of exotic locales in Chile, Rwanda and Beijing. On December 2, Disney will use Google Cardboard as a serial tie-in for its much-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie. Obviously, 7-year-olds aren't the prime target demo of these efforts.
Perhaps for good reason: Bringing VR to the realm of really young children isn't easy. Kids have to like it, but parents—who are plunking down the cash—have to trust it.
Group brand director Suzy Sammons of creative shop 180LA, which Mattel hired to help out with design and brand strategy, admits that "virtual reality is a worst nightmare for parents" who might worry that giving a VR device to a child will mean he or she chooses a digital world instead of human friends.
"Virtual reality is becoming more mainstream, but you don't want [your kids] cuddled up in the corner and never leave the house," Sammons said. "That's the concern of parents—that your kids will never come out."
For that reason, Mattel made sure the new View-Master remained a handheld viewer—no headphones and nothing that straps to your head.
Another key piece of making VR kid friendly was positioning the new View-Master as an educational toy. In addition to the starter pack, there are three "experience packs"—Wildlife, Space and Destinations.
Mattel partnered with National Geographic and NASA to create the realistic content for the first two. Each pack contains a reel (designed to resemble the paper photo reels that the old View-Masters used) with a QR code in the center. Aiming the new viewer at the disk kicks off the "adventure" via augmented reality animation, and pop-up text boxes feature explanations about the environments. These features, Sammons says, distinguish the new View-Master from video games—even though kids do navigate through the terrain using a clicker that prompts the app—and keeps the emphasis on learning. "This isn't mean to be a half-hour long game—it's 15 minutes and sharable," Sammons said. "So it's a big thing in classrooms."
But will it be a big thing with the actual kids, who already have no shortage of digital distractions to choose from? Experts say sure—but if Mattel wants them to really stick around, there has to be more than just a beautiful 3-D world to swim around in.
Callie Leone, global strategist and resident VR expert at idea shop Gyro, believes that "nostalgic" parents may well be moved to buy a View-Master for the kids, but if Mattel wants longevity for the toy, it should find ways to "inspire you to learn beyond just that 15 minutes of trying it out." For example, creating an online community for View-Master users, she said, would help "grow the relationship" beyond just the toy and get kids more involved.
Meghan Labot, managing director of consultancy Spring Design Partners, builds on that suggestion. "It's great that View-Master has taken the stereographic image to the next level," she said, "but without an interactive component where kids can manipulate the contact, customize it, go beyond what is seen on the surface, I fear that an opportunity has been missed. Generation Z will be the next big group that marketers cover, but in order to win them over like any other generation, we have to challenge ourselves to deliver beyond their expectations."
For now, though, Appleman believes Mattel has done that, and the equity in the View-Master name will create the trust factor necessary to get the product moving off store shelves. "Kids are learning about VR right now. It's exciting to them," he said. "So you've got the kids excited about the technology and the parents excited about the brand. It's a nice convergence."