Hands-On Test: Merge VR Goggles

I spent some time testing out the Merge Virtual Reality (VR) Goggles over the past few days.  These goggles are an interesting way to get started with virtual reality, and I’ll describe my experience while trying to use them with various VR media.

Disclaimer: These goggles were provided by the manufacturer free of charge, but we are providing an honest review that is not influenced by the manufacturer or anyone else. Now on to the review.

(No time to read the whole review? Then jump straight to our Conclusion)

Overview

First of all I’m no VR expert – in fact I’ve never used any type of VR hardware before at all.  So my review is coming from the point of view of a true novice, who is most likely the target market for these goggles.

Merge VR Goggles

Merge VR Goggles

There are two general classes of VR hardware available:

  • VR goggles that use a smartphone inserted in them to provide the visual experience.  These are less expensive, usually well under $100.  The most basic of these is the Google Cardboard.
  • Dedicated hardware like Oculus, Gear VR or Vive.  The full VR experience with these products can cost from $200 to $1500

The Merge VR Goggles are clearly a step up from the simplistic Google Cardboard goggles, with the following features:

  • They are made from a comfortable foam material, as opposed to, well, cardboard
  • Secure and comfortable head straps
  • Adjustable lens controls
  • On-screen Smartphone controls
  • Anti-fog vents
  • Support for camera operation during usage

360 VR Media Selection

Regardless of what model of VR goggles you use you need a source of 360 degree VR media to view.  I found that the quality of this media was a big factor in my enjoyment of the goggles.

I started with the Merge website Vrstart.com, as suggested by the product packaging.  This site lists a selection of Apps and YouTube videos that support VR viewing.  This website is a convenient starting point, but this is not the only way to find VR-supported media.  E.g. You can go directly to YouTube.com and search for 360 enabled videos.

Goggle Operation

I had a range of experiences with the Merge VR Goggles, to some extent driven by the quality of the media I tried. But for now let me stick to the goggles themselves.

The first issue I ran into is that my personal phone is a little too small to work in these goggles.  I have an older Samsung Galaxy S4. So I had to borrow an S5 from a family member for this testing.  So if you want to buy these goggles make sure you have a more recent smartphone (within the past two years).

Inserting the phone was a bit difficult – it was a tight squeeze.  This often caused me to press a button accidentally on the phone which forced me to take the phone out and get back into the proper mode.  It took a while to figure out how to insert and then later remove the phone from the goggles without pushing a stray button.  Once the phone was inserted properly I was good to go.

The adjustable lenses worked quite well.  They allowed me to set them just right for a sharp viewing experience.

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The control buttons were useful, but only for certain media.  When experiencing 360-enabled YouTube videos a button press would allow us to control the video (pause, restart, mute).  When using the Google Streetview app we were able to move our position by pressing the buttons.  But other media did not seem to react to the buttons, so these were not as rewarding to experience.

VR-Enabled Apps

I tried a couple of free apps but I was not particularly impressed.  One app would not run on my Samsung S5.  Another app was of surprisingly low quality.  Also the goggle control buttons did not seem to do much good with the apps. I’m sure if I tried some more apps I’d find some that I liked.  Although there is one I did like …

Google Streetview App

I really liked this app.  There are two kinds of media available here:  user-submitted 360-degree photos, and Google Streetview scenes.  The Streetview scenes allow you to walk through international tourist destinations, like Amsterdam and Rome.  All of the media that I watched is high-resolution and very sharp. Once I’m done writing this review this is the first app I’m going to go back to since the opportunities are almost endless.

streetview

YouTube Videos

I enjoyed watching 360-enabled YouTube videos on the goggles.  The goggle controls allowed us to start and stop the video and to adjust the volume.  There is a huge variety of high resolution 360-enabled videos on YouTube so this source of VR media alone may be worth the price of admission.

Conclusion/Recommendation

Considering that this is our first VR viewing experience we enjoyed using these goggles.  They are somewhat higher priced than the bare-bones Google Cardboard, but far less expensive than dedicated hardware.  Plus the foam construction is certain to last longer than cardboard.  Using these goggles with certain media is a very rewarding, and as an entry-level selection we give a THUMBS UP to the Merge VR Goggles.

Blank Mug Design

buy-amazon-button2P.S. Be sure to switch to WIFI mode when using the goggles.  We noticed a high amount of data usage when watching 360-enabled content.

Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.

Hands-On Test: da Vinci miniMaker 3D Printer

We got our hands on a really cool device that might be just the toy your kids will do flips over this Christmas.  It’s the da Vinci miniMaker 3D Printer, made by XYZ Printing.  It’s not the typical toy that we normally write about on this site, but we couldn’t pass up the chance to put a state of the art 3D printer through its paces.

minimakerThe da Vinci miniMaker is an entry-level 3D printer that is designed with kids in mind.  The idea is that it is easy to set-up, has easy-to-use software, and can get you started with lots of available pre-designed objects that you can create right away.  But the printer also supports the printing of designs you make yourself with more advanced software.  In that way it can grow as your kids grow, and it gets them excited about technology, and gives them some practical experience, at a young age.  But it can also unlock the artistic side of kids as well, so it is not a purely technology-focused product.

First of all … Full Disclosure:  We were loaned this printer by the manufacturer so that we could test and review it.  Our review is honest and is based solely on our own experience.

But enough legal-speak. Now on to the testing!  There are many aspects to this review, so I’ve tried to organize it into sections.  I am not going to provide every detailed step, but I will highlight areas that worked well for us and those that did not.

buy-amazon-button2Assembly

The unboxing and assembly was pretty painless, but not without a bit of confusion.  For the most part the printer is almost fully assembled.  You must first remove all of the packing material from the inside of the printer.  And then you have to install the extruder module, the filament spool, and then assemble the plastic protection box.  If you follow the instructions carefully these steps will be pretty uneventful.

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Box Contents

Assembled Printer - Ready to Go!

Assembled Printer – Ready to Go!

The confusion we ran into here was that the printed Get Started instructions say nothing about the plastic protection box.  We went ahead and installed it and figure out what it was for (to keep curious fingers away from the moving printer mechanism).

Make sure that you locate the printer on a solid, level surface.  The constant back-and-forth motion of the printer mechanism (often for hours at a time) could cause it to shift and fall of the table.  And instruct any small children to keep their HANDS OFF the printer.  It should be handled only by adults and responsible children that can understand that this is a complicated and potentially dangerous machine when it is operating.

Software

You can’t print anything on a 3D printer without the proper software.  This is where the miniMaker excels as a tool for young kids.  The manufacturer provides you with a package called XYZware, which can use to take pre-made designs and simply and easily print them out.  You are not required to know how to design your own three dimensional objects (although you can if you want, with different software).  The software lets you import designs, and perform simple manipulations on them:  change size, move, rotate, etc.

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Software with Bear design downloaded from the XYZprinting website

The good news is that once we got the software installed correctly we were able to print sample designs almost right away.  But one problem we ran into was not really knowing where to find the proper software to install.  The instructions mention the package XZYware, but we had trouble finding it on their website.  We eventually had to go to the Support area, then click on the miniMaker printer icon, then we could find the software to download.  This would not be obvious to most users, and we feel this could significantly impact the enjoyment of the 3D printer.

In fact let me say at this point that the XZYprinting website has no special portal or landing page which helps first-time users navigate the site and easily find what they need.  This is one area of improvement that we think the manufacturer could improve upon.

Printing

We were able to print a number of different designs with our printer.  For an entry-level  machine we think the printer did an adequate job.  The pieces had a few minor imperfections but nothing really worth mentioning in detail.  The printer is not noisy – it just whirs and buzzes as it goes about its job.

The printing process is fairly straightforward, but we did run into a few problems (described below).  Printing involves the software “slicing” up the design, sending the information to the printer, and the printer does the rest.  And then … waiting … and waiting … and waiting.  In fact you will need a lot of patience and planning when starting a print.  Smaller objects may take 30 minutes to an hour or so.  Larger objects can take 2 or more hours.  So when beginning any print it is best to ensure that you will be available to check on the progress regularly in case anything unexpected would happen with the print.

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Completed Bear Print

The problems we ran into were (a) not initially performing the filament loading step before printing (our fault), and (b) printing a design with a very small base, which did not adhere well to the platform and caused a messed-up print soon after the print started.  The object came loose from the platform and the result was a mess of tangled plastic threads.

Problem (b) could have been avoided by applying glue stick glue to the platform surface, to allow the design to adhere better and not move during the print.  This is the recommendation when the room temperature is lower than 77 degrees (which it was in our house). We avoided such designs for the remainder of our testing to make sure we could test the printing capability of the unit to complete our review.

Other

The good: We were able to create and print some custom designs with the XZYmaker software.  This software is rather easy to use (if you have some computer know-how).  We simply saved our design to an .stl file which we then imported into the XYZware software for printing.

Custom design created using XYZmaker software

Custom design created using XYZmaker software

Also, the XZYprinting website has thousands of uploaded designs in their 3D Gallery that you can view and download for yourself.  There are categories for Toys, Gadgets, Art, and a few others.  Once you find something you think you’ll like you can download it, import it into XYZware, change the size as needed, and print it out.

xyz-3dgallery

The not-so-good:  The included documentation is incomplete and can lead to delays in getting started. The document is a mediocre black-and-white copy of the original full-color manual that can be found online.  It is better to download the latest user manual from the XZYprinting website before getting started.  The downloaded manual has all of the information you’ll need to operate the printer.

manual-download

One more thing – this is a one-color printer.  Our printer came with yellow filament, so of course all of our objects are yellow.  You could probably buy a different color of filament to make objects a more pleasing color.  We may do that in the next month or two (we’re already getting tired of yellow)

Other items printed using XZYware

Other items we printed using XZYware

So what comes next?

You may ask what can you do with this device after printing out a few little toys.  Here are some ideas:

  • Smooth and paint them to create really beautiful works of art
  • Start creating your own designs, using more advanced software
  • Find interesting 3D design files on the internet
  • Convert photos to 3D files.  We found a few websites that will do this by simply uploading a photo.

There are tons of 3D printing related websites on the internet – it is a HUGE are for both professional companies and hobbyists.  If you want to get serious about 3D printing there is no end to the information you can find on the internet.

Conclusion

If you bring some patience and perseverance to the table the daVinci miniMaker 3D printer can be a really enjoyable first 3D printing experience for you and your children.  Once you work through the website navigation, the software installation, and locating and printing your first design you will feel very satisfied and motivated to think about what other objects you can create.  There are lots of small household gadgets and toys that you could print.  You could even create custom gifts for friends and relatives, for example a personalized cell-phone stand or Christmas ornament.  We give a THUMBS UP to the da Vinci miniMaker 3D printer.

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Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.

Best Tablets for Kids and Adults 2016

There are a tremendous selection of tablets that are appropriate for kids in 2016.  We find them broken down into two categories: General tablets, and Kid-designed tablets.  So let’s find out which are the best tablets for children in 2016.

Google Pixel C

Google Pixel C Tablet

Google Pixel C Tablet

The Google Pixel C Android tablet has a compact and slim aluminum design that feels very sturdy, and when kids are using a tablet sturdiness is what you need. It has a long-running battery and its performance is very quick.  You do have the ability to attach a keyboard, but for kids that is rarely needed (just maybe if they need to sue this for homework in the higher school grades).  In summary this is a very good tablet for the money.

Display: 10.2 inches, 2560×1800 pixels

buy-amazon-buttonApple iPad Mini 4

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Apple iPad Mini 4

The Apple iPad Mini 4 comes with all the power and features of the iOS operating system that Apple is known for, with the smaller design that works better for kids’ smaller hands.  It has the 7.9″ Retina display, a dual-core A8 chip with quad-core graphics – all combining to yield top-rate performance.  The 8MP camera is world renown.  In summary we love this tablet for kids, especially if the parent are already immersed in the Apple product line.

Display: 7.9″, 2048×1536 pixels (Retina)

buy-amazon-buttonSamsung Galaxy Tab S2

Samsung Galaxy Tab S2

Samsung Galaxy Tab S2

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8-inch tablet is a very respectable device, with a lower price point that makes it quite attractive as a kid’s tablet, even compared against the iPad Mini. It is thinner and lighter than the iPad Mini 4, and has more internal storage as well.  The HD screen is very crisp and clear. For an Android tablet this would be a very good choice for a child.

Display: 8 inch, 2048×1536 pixels

buy-amazon-buttonAmazon Fire HD 8

Amazon Fire HD 8

Amazon Fire HD 8

There are three levels of the Amazon Fire Tablet (6, 8, and 10), and they all are generally less expensive than all of the other tablets listed above.  The least expensive is the Fire HD 6 with a display of only 6 inches.   We recommend at least the HD 8 if you can afford it.  We suggest you dig into the specifications of all three tablets before purchasing, but one thing to be aware of is that all three models have the same number of display pixels (even though the displays are different sizes), and they all have the same processor.  The differences are seen in the additional features such as camera quality, WIFI capability, colors, and weight.  Also, all tablets can be purchased in different memory capacity (go for the larger if you can).

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Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.

Great Gifts for Teens and Tweens

Let’s face it – little kids are pretty easy to buy gifts for.  There is a wide range of games, toys, clothes, etc, to choose from.  You would be hard-pressed to really struggle buying a toy for a 3-year old or a 5-year old.  I think this is because they are willing to try lots of different things – even if the gift quickly ends up in the dust-heap of unplayed-with toys.

razor_scooter-2But teens and tweens – that’s a different story altogether.  Many kids of this age are into very specific things, and if they receive a gift that doesn’t fit their expectations you will know about it very quickly (unless the recipient is especially polite).

So what makes a good tween gift or teenager gift.  We’re not talking toys here – let’s not even go there.  We’re talking gifts that can be bought with little pre-knowledge of what the particular kid is interested in.  How do we do this?  We think about what most kids in the 10-15 year old range are interested, to one degree or another:  Socializing with friends, experimenting with exciting challenges, and for many kids digging deeper into math and science.

So let’s take a stab at some great gift ideas for kids in approximately the 10-15 year old range.

Social Games – For Parties or Just Hanging Out

Codename

Codename

The game Codenames is a highly rated game for ages 14 and up.  Each game is fairly short – only about 15 minutes – so it won’t drag a simple get-together into a marathon gaming night.

Codenames is a wordplay game which involves attempting to identify the codenames of up to 25 secret agents through a process of guessing and strategy.  You can play individually or in teams (for a more lively game).

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Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne is a tile-laying game that will take a little more time to play than the previous one.  The players develop an area around the French city of Carcassonne and deploy their followers on the roads, in the cities, and in the fields.  The most skillful player to develop the area will become victorious.

This game is officially rated for ages 8-15 years of age, but it can be fun for the whole family young and old alike.

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Getting Adventurous

UDI 818A Quadcopter + HD Camera

UDI 818A Quadcopter + HD Camera

This version of the UDI 818A Quadcopter is pretty sweet.  First of all it is based on the very popular 818A base model that we found was very popular in 2015.  But now there are a few additions that we think make this a very attractive entry-level quadcopter.

The HD camera is the main feature.  It has a 2 mega-pixel camera which can take high-res pictures and video during flight.

The Return Home function lets you command your drone to return to you with the push of a button.  No more lost drones (well, maybe fewer lost drones).

818a_drone_hd-2

This model has 6-axis gyro stability which is great in windy conditions and also makes it easily maneuverable for stunts.  Also has 2 batteries to double flight time and a 2200 mAh power bank to let you charge on the go.

As always with drones, they are somewhat breakable and prone to being lost.  This model has fairly good blade protection so you won’t be replacing blades every time it crashes.  But be aware that your drone will only last as long as you are able to keep it one piece.  (replacement parts are available though)

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razor_scooter

Electric Razor Scooter

The E100 Electric Scooter from Razor is a really fun scooter to use.  Razor has been making scooters for many years and their electric scooters are very popular.  As with any scooter there is an element of risk – riding the scooter on bumpy roads or sidewalks, or riding into traffic are sure-fire ways to get yourself injured or worse.  So safety precautions must be taken when riding this scooter.

The motor is high-torque, and the battery is a long-lasting 24V unit.The scooter can reach speeds of 10 MPH.  The recharge time is about 12 hours, and the ride time is about 40 minutes of continuous use.

(Don’t forget the safety helmet and even knee and elbow pads for the younger ones)

Check out all of the feature of this highly-rated scooter on Amazon.

Getting all Science-y

First Microscope

First Microscope

Calling all future biologists!! The My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope features three magnifications: 40x, 100x, and 400x.  The optics are real glass (not plastic), and there is a 50-piece accessory kit.  This is a real biological microscope – not just some toy.  It can be used just for fun or for running real biological experiments.

This item is rated for ages 9-18 years.

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Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.