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Oculus' push to make virtual reality mainstream

At Oculus' developer conference in Hollywood on Thursday, Facebook's virtual reality platform unveiled lower-cost hardware and a slew of media partnerships that aim to bring the technology to the mainstream. While hard-core gamers wait for the Oculus Rift to launch for use with PCs in the first quarter of next year, a more casual user can get his or her hands on the Samsung Gear VR: A new version is going on sale for $99 in November, half the price of the headset last year.

Perhaps most important: Oculus users will now have access to more games and video content than ever before. In November, "Oculus Arcade" is launching, bringing classics including "Pacman" and "Sonic the Hedgehog" into the virtual realm. Oculus Video will enable users to experience more than ever before—from swimming with sharks to watching Lebron James prepare for a game, said Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe.

A Netflix app for Oculus launched Thursday, followed by apps from video game streaming company Twitch, along with Hulu, Vimeo and TiVo coming soon. Plus, Hollywood studios Fox and Lionsgate are partnering with Gear VR. Fox will bring more than 100 movies into the Oculus Store at launch, to watch the films in 2-D or 3-D within the Oculus VR Cinema app.

These Fox and Lionsgate films and Netflix shows aren't shot with the new VR cameras, so the legacy content won't be 360, like videos that are shot specifically for the format. But Samsung has referred to its headset as a "Head Mounted Theater."

Oculus CTO John Carmack says on Netflix's Tech Blog, "In many conditions the 'best seat in the house' may be in the Gear VR that you pull out of your backpack." The idea is that putting on an Oculus headset will allow users to feel like they're sitting in a screening room, providing a much more intense, immersive experience than simply staring at a smartphone or iPad screen. And the idea is that as each of these content companies create more VR content, they'll work with Oculus to make sure it's easy and compelling for users.

Thursday's announcements speak to the degree that VR is shifting from a high-tech experience for hard-core gamers, to an affordable way for anyone who wants to access entertainment to immerse themselves in content. We're still a ways off from there being a critical mass of content that's been shot in virtual reality, but Thursday's announcement certainly indicates that some of the biggest content players understand the power of the new platform, for generating new revenue and keeping consumers hooked on their brands.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance on stage to underscore the importance of the new platform. "There is always a richer and more immersive medium. The next logical step is fully immersive VR," Zuckerberg said at the developers conference. He said what the company announced Wednesday is "just a 360 video. In the future you're going to feel like you're right there."