For Christmas my youngest and her hubby bought me a ViewMaster VR Viewer Starter Kit. It wasn’t a huge shock; I’d had it on my Christmas list for some time. But I wasn’t really expecting such an extravagant gift in this fraught economic year.
I’ve now spent about six hours with my new toy. I must say I haven’t been this excited about a new technology in some time, and perhaps a decade or more since I was excited about a technology that was this affordable.
Cardboard is an amazing technology invented and released by Google that brings low-end virtual reality into reach of every consumer and even developer out there who’s interested in the technology. I’ve been interested in VR since the spring of 1986 when I wrote Silicon Visions: The Future of Microcomputer Technology in which I interviewed a young up-and-coming tech rock star named Jaron Z. Lanier. I was fascinated by what this early inventor of the VR world had to say; much of it, as I recall it now almost 30 years later, has proven to be prescient.
My first thoughts about the VM Viewer and some of the content available for it range from positive to astonishing. My few criticisms are, in the grand scheme of things, minor and more related to the inexpensive implementation of the technology as proffered by ViewMaster than anything else.
The out-of-box experience, or OOBE, with the VM Viewer Starter Kit is pretty good. The packaging is clear, there are no barriers to getting the device out of the box and ready to go. But instructions are a bit sparse and in at least one important case unclear. The latch that opens the hinged unit to allow for the placement of the smartphone that is the source of all of the app and content pieces proved particularly stubborn. It turned out that the diagram in the tiny instruction booklet was inadequate (at least for me) and I was struggling to get at the darned thing while at the same time fearful of breaking it.
The VM model comes with three sample “experiences” which make it quick and easy to engage with the technology. Before you can enjoy these experiences, you must download the appropriate apps to your smartphone. Then you have to link a plastic reel (think a shrunken version of the old cardboard wheels of the antique ViewMaster) to the viewer by pointing the viewer at the reel lying flat on a surface.
This turned out to be — apparently, at least — a part of my biggest complaint about the techie toy so far. The process of launching an app on the smartphone, inserting the phone into the viewer and beginning the actual experience is inconsistent and fairly non-obvious. I battled the procedure numerous times throughout the first hours of familiarizing myself with the viewer. In fact, I still have trouble about a third of the time making it all go smoothly without closing the app inadvertently. Not infrequently, just when I had it figured out, I’d close the latch on the viewer only to see through the binocular lenses a prompt asking me to authorize the app to do something or an instruction screen that wasn’t visible before I set the phone in place. I’m sure there’s a method here, but it’s at best translucent.
After just a few hours with the viewer, I find myself generally satisfied with the quality and usability of the device. But it’s clear this is a Version 1.0 release of a product that will benefit from future enhancements and upgrades.
I’ve already mentioned the sticky latch problem that I encountered during the initial experience with the viewer. That seems to be part of the larger issue of the relative fragility of the overall construction of the unit. The hinges that join the two portions of the clam shell are a little loose and sometimes stubborn. The powerful springs inside the viewer that contain the phone work reasonably well but seem to have very tight tolerances. As a result, inserting and removing the phone from its required position often results in accidental tapping of the screen or the Home button, necessitating a restart of the program or the process.
The other problem that causes me a bit of concern is the loose reel that you have to use to access any of the ViewMaster content. As I experimented, I concluded this was not a major glitch since I probably won’t be using a lot of that proprietary content. Still, it feels weird—kind of like the old days of the hardware dongle—to rely on something outside the device to make the content accessible.
The other point is perhaps not related directly to the viewer. Until I’ve had more experience with Cardboard, I won’t know for sure. But navigation within various pieces of VR content is awfully inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable. I was frequently unsure what, if anything, I could do in a given situation, let alone how to do it. Even the simple act of quitting an app was sometimes puzzling. Perhaps this is a broader user experience issue that designers will somehow sort out as this technology grows in popularity.
Included with the VM VR Viewer Starter Kit are three bits of sample content:
- National Geographic Wildlife
I should point out that each of these is a very small taste of the much larger experiences for which you must pay $15 to download or unlock on your phone. They serve the purpose well; I wish ViewMaster had included a tutorial experience as well through which the consumer could learn the navigational techniques of this implementation of VR.
Space was my first choice and I must say I was underwhelmed. I expected to get a glimpse of some Hubble stuff in 3D or perhaps a bit of solar system exploration. Instead, the focus is on the Space Shuttle, which has a few information spots which are like hyperlink popups that give you more information about the payload bay, cockpit, engine, etc. The sample also includes a small game in which you are supposed to watch and learn the sequence of actions it takes to launch the spacecraft and then attempt to reproduce. But that part of the demo was too cartoony so that it was more 3D than VR in my view.
Destinations was much better. It was essentially a 3D world without a lot of VR interactivity but it was quite well done. I spent quite some time exploring the Acropolis and other features of ancient Athens. The full experience includes London, New York and the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.
The NatGeo piece was quite well done graphically, gave more variety, and was a smoother VR experience but there were mostly just 3D scenery shots with sound effects showing off parts of the Amazon, the Australian Outback and the Saharan Savannah.
I would have assumed I’d ultimately be willing to part with the relatively exorbitant prices for the space and destinations pieces, in that order, based on personal interest but having explored the large-ish amounts of free content available outside the VM ecosphere, I’ll probably pass. They need to beef up those initial experiences if they’re going to sell much content to folks who choose to explore Cardboard VR stuff offered by other publishers.
Next Up: Other Content, Part One