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Oculus Go has arrived: Facebook's portable VR system breaks the $200 barrier

Facebook’s betting TV and movie watching will finally get you to try VR. And it might just be right.

James Martin/CNET

Brian Blau was in China two years ago when he found the killer app that could remake how we use virtual reality.

Blau, a longtime analyst for Gartner, was meeting with VR headset makers and app developers, hoping to glean insights about the way their customers acted, and perhaps find the elusive must-have app that convinces people to buy their products. The killer app.

That's when he was told that more than 60 percent of Chinese VR users strapped on the devices to watch videos, typically on a large simulated screen.

After years of watching companies and developers toil in search of a killer app to sell people on VR, he realized that watching normal TV and movies on a simulated movie screen in VR was the answer.

"I was smacking my head, I'm like 'OK, of course, why not watch it in VR?" he said. At first he didn't understand why this phenomenon was happening. But then he remembered that streaming video was already huge on pretty much every screen in our lives. (Remember: Apple pitched the original iPhone as a YouTube watching device.) Why not with VR too, where you can simulate a massive theater screen, making it all that much more compelling? 

"It's really that simple," he said.

Oculus Go. Basic and cleanly designed.

Scott Stein/CNET

Now, Facebook's Oculus VR division is following suit, writing apps that might finally sell you on getting a headset so that you can get what the company says are even better ways to watch a traditional movie or TV show.

The company is developing a trio of apps -- Oculus Gallery, Oculus TV and Oculus Venues -- designed to turn your headset into the device of choice to watch shows and movies, look at photos and tune into concerts and sports. They were announced alongside the launch of the company's newer, cheaper $199 headset called Oculus Go, which is available for purchase Tuesday from its own site, in addition to Amazon, Best Buy and NewEgg.

(Read CNET's review of the Go here.)

It may seem odd that after years of searching for a must-have game or app that would convince people they need a headset, Oculus' latest answer boils down to a better way to watch TV and movies. But it's something people asked for in survey after survey as the company researched what people wanted from VR.

"This is one thing that people have told us loud and clear," said Madhu Muthukumar who's helping head up the team building software for Oculus. Watching TV and movies "is a really big thing that people want to do and it's the thing that they're clamoring for more of."

The new apps are just the latest in a string of announcements the company has made in attempts to find the reasons people haven't yet bought these headsets.

Now playing: Watch this: Oculus Go's $199 VR headset can go anywhere
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The slow rate of adoption, after decades of development and pent-up excitement around the tech industry, has confounded executives, developers and fans alike. To hear people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tell it, VR isn't just about putting a headset so close to your face that it tricks your brain into thinking you're in a computer-generated world. It's a technology that will upend the way we live, and his goal is to get 1 billion people to try it.

"Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home," he wrote when announcing  that Facebook had purchased the company for about $2 billion in 2014. "This is really a new communication platform."

Slow start

But now, nearly two years after the first headsets were made widely available, sales have been underwhelming. And the list of common complaints about virtual reality remain: The headsets are big and goofy-looking. There isn't a must-have reason to get it. And the cost is way too high for a good device.

mark-zuckerberg-oculus-vr-f8-facebook-virtual-reality

Zuckerberg (left) says VR will change the way we use computers.

Facebook

Facebook believes Oculus Go may be the answer. The headset on the device meant to be more comfortable than $399 flagship Oculus Rift headset, at half the cost. (The Rift debuted at $599 in March 2016).

Stephanie Llamas, an analyst at SuperData, forecast the low price could help spark interest. Facebook will likely sell 1.8 million Oculus Go headsets over the next three quarters, Llamas said, with "an expected surge during the holiday season."

The Oculus Go is slimmed down, making it easier to wear if you have glasses. The speakers are built in so you don't need a pair of headphones.

The Oculus Go also doesn't require cords plugged into a PC for power. The device powers itself so you don't need a separate computer or high-end phone, which save you at least another $600. 

Despite the absence of extra oomph, the Oculus Go is still muscular enough to play power-hungry games, like the new space ship shooting epic "Anshar Online or the fast-paced theme park game "Coaster Combat." It can also handle about 1,000 other apps already developed for the Samsung Gear VR.

"We think that this is the most approachable VR product coming to market," Muthukumar said.

But just as important as this new hardware will be the new apps to help make it interesting.

Oculus said its effort will hinge on new partnerships with app makers who already provide TV and movies like Hulu, Netflix and Showtime (which, like CNET, is owned by CBS). Facebook is also working with AEG Presents for live concerts and NextVR for sports.

"We wanted this to be something that you could decide 'Hey, I'm interested in VR and want to go and try this,'" Muthukumar said.

Now we'll find out if others agree.

First published May 1, 10:30 a.m. PT
Update, 12:53 p.m.: Adds analyst forecas; 2:59 p.m.: Adds purchasing options details.

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