San Antonio virtual reality company Merge VR dipped its toe into the education market with last year's release of the Merge Cube, a holographic toy that, when viewed through the lens of a smartphone or VR goggles, transforms into VR objects, such as fireplaces and stretchy hunks of cheese.
Slightly bigger than a Rubik's Cube, the Merge Cube (manufacturer's suggested retail price: $14.99) has classroom applications ranging from playfully diversionary to mind-nourishing.
Steve Patti, Merge's chief marketing officer, called the product "edutainment" – a term that was popularized in the 1990s when educational video games such as "Math Blaster" and "Oregon Trail" were installed in seemingly every Texas public school's computer laboratory.
I spent a week playing with the Cube. Intended for children ages 10 and up, the holographic toy is awe-inducingly neat, but parents won't need to worry about their kids getting hooked on the Cube the way many have on the multiplayer shooter game "Fortnite."
To understand the Cube's capabilities, it's important to know the difference between VR and AR, augmented reality, which more accurately describes the Cube environment. VR is totally immersive, and a user has no visual reference to the physical world. Take a safety lesson from this journalist – who had seven stitches sewn into his right orbital bone area last year after ambitiously long-jumping while engrossed in a VR game – VR is something to graduate to; or if you're a klutz like me, you might need a padded room to play in.
How it works
To use the Cube, you must have an iOS- or Android-powered phone. Visit the appropriate app store, and find an array of third-party apps for Merge VR. Once there, find the game that appeals most to you.
Our favorite is Tiltball, which is a bit like a cubic version of a marble run track in which the user guides a ball over bridges and other hurdles designed to make the ball splash into the water, ending the game. (Don't ask for our high score).
If you want to explore the Cube's educational aspects, the Object Viewer, also downloadable on the App and Google Play stores, features a searchable "Miniverse" of VR/AR content, including a view that transforms the cube into the Sun with the planets of the Solar System orbiting it. Tap on the planets to reveal a dialog box with information on each celestial object.
While many of the games – educational and otherwise – work with the use of a smartphone, the best and most immersive experience of the Merge Cube is with Merge VR/AR Goggles (MSRP: $29.99). This takes the user experience to another level and eliminates having to juggle a phone and the Cube, which is a bit like patting your head while rubbing your tummy; it diminishes the experience.
The interface is relatively simple. While a Merge app is pulled up in VR/AR mode, simply slide your smartphone into the headset's slot, adjust the lenses, and transport yourself to the land of virtual reality. The goggles feature a removable lens cap for an augmented reality experience.
Both the Cube and the goggles are enveloped in soft foam to prevent breakage, especially when used by young children.
The gameplay wasn't rapturously deep, and the Cube can get glitchy when your smartphone has trouble scanning the holographic symbols on its sides. But for a VR/AR product that won't break the bank, it's a solid purchase.
Both products are available at Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and online via Amazon.