The seeds of Golf+ VR started with founder Ryan Engle creating an iOS ARKit app to help read the golf putting green topology to give a suggested path to help improve his puts, but the lack of demand caused a pivot into moving into a professional putting simulator in partnership with Top Golf with Pro Putt by Top Golf, a rebrand to Golf+, and most recently a funding round that including Rory McIlroy (the current #1 ranked golfer in the world), Jordan Spieth, Tom Brady, Steph Curry, Mike Trout and Ben Crenshaw.
I had a chance to talk to the founder Engle about his journey into VR, writing his own custom physics engine, the process of transforming the initial app from a professional training tool to an engaging video game, the series of strategic partnerships to make golf more accessible to casual players, tuning the difficulty at three different levels, evolving from putting into full courses, the 4-6 week process to translate a physical course into a virtual course, simulating the golf swing with peripherals, recreating “shot euphoria” and the golf feel of short game shots, why sports super stars like Tom Brady and Steph Curry were interested in investing in the app, and new opportunities for virtual golf architecture and course design.
It’s a really engaging app that has been able to find it’s way into the top charts as it recreates some of the social dynamics of playing golf with tunable difficulty bumpers and making golf more accessible to new users and users who can no longer physically play full rounds of golf.
This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.Music: Fatality
[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Fuiso Fiera podcast. So in today's episode, we're going to be covering Golf Plus and their aim to make golf more generally accessible to the wider public through virtual reality simulation. So I have a chance to talk to Ryan Engel, who's the founder and CEO and his journey into creating this app, which was a bit of a circuitous journey and starting with augmented reality and trying to create a functional application that golfers could use on the putting green to be able to help read the lie and give some suggested paths for how to make the putt. Eventually, that was not viable as an augmented reality app due to the social stigma and all the technology limitations. He pivoted into virtual reality simulation and created his own physics engine and has created a really compelling simulation of golf in the way that golf as a game doesn't really have much bumpers. When I've played, I've been pretty terrible. playing this virtual reality simulation, it gives me the experience of this shot euphoria, as it's called, where it gives you the sense of actually being decent at golf. He's able to actually nudge things in a way that have different difficulty levels from novice to amateur and pro. And it ends up creating a really quite compelling experience. It caught my attention recently just because they did a round of funding and they had sports superstars like Tom Brady and Steph Curry, but also some pretty famous professional golfers like Rory McIlroy, who's the number one golfer in the world. who's standing behind this as an experience, but also there's another layer of the frontiers of golf course architecture that's also included in this piece as well. So really fascinating journey and story and really quite successful and compelling application as well. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of OasisVR Podcast. So this interview with Ryan happened on Tuesday, November 1st, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:54.524] Ryan Engle: My name is Ryan Engel. I'm the founder and CEO of Golf Plus, and I'm an engineer by trade, been golfing since I was a kid, and now running Golf Plus, which is a virtual reality golf experience.
[00:02:09.353] Kent Bye: Okay. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.
[00:02:14.163] Ryan Engle: Yeah, sure. I started playing golf when I was 11 and I started writing code when I was 13. Thankfully, I went to a high school in Northern Virginia that had an IB program. So IB is like kind of like the equivalent of AP, but it's like the European standard. And they had IB computer science. Growing up, I was always into Legos and science and math and computers and all of that. So I took the computer science class, this was in like 1999, and immediately fell in love with computer programming. Most of my friends that were in class at that time, the big thing was to just work on games. So I think Pong was like the first game I ever built. Tried to build like a top-down type of game using Visual Basic. Our second year we got introduced to C++ and I taught myself OpenGL. There were some amazing tutorials online even at that time. So got obsessed with the 3D world. I was really big into Half-Life and Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic and online gaming with Half-Life. So I downloaded the Half-Life SDK and started building mods. All my friends in computer science classes were more interested in the more traditional programming aspects. So I was the only one getting pretty deep into it. So I taught myself 3D Studio Max. you know, definitely didn't pay for the license at that time being a high schooler, but tried to teach myself how to model, teach myself how to build textures. I was really bad at both of them, but pretty good at the programming part. I ended up building my own Half-Life mod called Explode-a-thon where every single weapon in the game exploded in some way, shape or form. So there were these little like proximity bombs that you could throw and they would just keep bouncing around the level until they got near something and they would explode. Convinced my friends to play with me and after about 15 minutes, I think the best score was probably negative 10 because these bombs would just bounce back and kill you. But it was a really fun experience, got me convinced that I was pretty into game programming. But I like to spend more time actually programming the games and building the engine and even playing the games. So I went to Virginia Tech for college, got my computer science degree there, like started to build sort of an engine on the side and kind of move away from games into more like, what can you do with lighting and physics and things like that, the sort of fundamental aspects versus like a game itself. And then I graduated and ended up moving to Austin, Texas. My parents had moved out here. So this was in like 2008. So I moved to Austin before it was cool when it was still weird. Now it's changed quite a bit. And I ended up getting a job at a company that built flip phone games. Like this was in 2008. So it was actually the iPhone had launched, but there was no app store yet. The App Store launched in September of 2008. I joined this company in June. And for the first couple of months, I was building Big Buck Hunter, the arcade game for flip phones, which was totally ridiculous. They had this technology before accelerometers were part of phones called IMO. And it would actually use the camera that were on these flip phones It would do some like very basic computer vision to kind of determine which way you were moving your phones. It acted like it was an accelerometer and you could like rotate the phone and it would change where you were kind of aiming in this Big Buck Hunter game. So that was interesting just getting into game development like proper right at the get go. The iPhone launched and then the game studio kind of fully transitioned to building iPhone games. So worked on Big Buck Hunter for iPhone, worked on a snowboarding game. But then the beginning of 2009, the studio was really struggling. It was a downturn in the economy. And I ended up getting laid off and decided that I would just pursue building apps on my own and see what would come of it. So got really into iPhone development, developed a few apps, none of which are like very notable. I thought they were all great. I built like an open GL page turn animation, like along with the iPhone one, which I thought was really cool. But it also helped me appreciate that, you know, no matter how good you think your app is, if you can't figure out how to. market it, it's not going to go anywhere. And I knew nothing about marketing. I definitely didn't have enough money to spend on advertising or anything like that. It was still so early in the mobile days that all of that was just very new and unclear. So I ended up joining a studio in Austin called Mutual Mobile. At the time, it was just 10 guys. I think there were four or five founders that had just graduated from UT in Austin. And they were like a year younger than me. So just like this really young group of people that were just like starting to, you know, initially develop apps for like a bakery and like a dog walking app. And like, you know, frankly, apps for companies that definitely didn't need to have apps, but we're like, it's mobile. We should totally have an app. and very quickly started to get bigger and bigger clients. So they got stumbled upon. And then we got Audi as a client and moved up to Google Project and Pearson and Xerox and started to do apps for these Fortune 500 companies. I stayed there for almost 3 years and ended up leaving towards the end of 2012. It went from 10 people to 300 people during that time. So it just ramped up really quickly doing all client work, all mobile. And it gave me an opportunity to carve out a niche for myself as the R&D rapid prototyping proof of concept guy. So anytime new hardware came out or new software came out, I would try to come up with a bunch of ideas to show how it could be used. And then the sales team there would try to go find new clients using that new technology as like, Oh, here's something that you could do that you couldn't do a month ago. That worked pretty well and it was super fun for me because it really fit my style. We got a client for glasses.com, which was owned by 1-800-CONTACTS. Got the 1-800-CONTACTS app to do just a proper normal app, and then glasses.com wanted to use augmented reality. This is 2011. They wanted to use augmented reality to render glasses on your face, not in real-time, like you couldn't move, but you would take a video of your head going side to side. And it would grab like 15 frames from that video. So you get like kind of a full turn and then it would it would render the glasses on your face. So work with like a CG artist here in Austin, work with some of the best face tracking people to like generate a 3D model of your face from those 15 images. The guy that we work with, Jason Saraghi, is actually now working for Meta. at reality labs, anytime you see like the preview videos of like what the most realistic video is going to look like, Jason is the guy in the videos and he's like doing that work. So he's just like next level genius, computer vision guy. So worked with him and got all the pieces put together, ended up launching glasses.com in 2013. I had left mutual mobile and kind of pursued that independently and started my own company to, to build out the glasses.com project. The founder of Glasses.com and 100 Contacts, his name is Jonathan Kuhn. And after we did the Glasses project, he and I developed a great relationship. He's very much a business person, but loves technology, loves AR, loves VR, loves all things technology. And he went on to found a company called Wikibuy that was an online shopping companion, very similar to Honey. So it would check coupons, find the best prices for you, do comparison shopping as a Chrome extension behind the scenes, and then surface the results to you. So after Glasses, Jonathan decided to leave 1-800-CONTACTS, which he had founded 25 years prior, and start this company called Wikibuy at the time, and asked if I wanted to join as the founding engineer. I took that opportunity. I figured, you know, he had sold 1-800-CONTACTS for about a billion dollars just before that. So I figured the opportunity to work with someone who had started a company from scratch and got it to about a billion was a pretty great opportunity, even though, frankly, I didn't have much passion for e-commerce. I still don't. But the tech was really fascinating. It helped me better understand web technology, how requests are made, how data is transferred, how pixel tracking works. With Wikibuy, the majority of growth was paid acquisition. So I worked very closely with our growth teams to build some tech around optimizing ads and that kind of thing. So it gave me a lot of respect for how the ad space works. I mean, it's definitely not the cleanest space in the world, but as an engineer, the optimization side of it is really fascinating. There's so many opportunities to kind of diagnose how an ad is working and who it's being shown to, and then just kind of optimize it to get the most out of that. So we developed some pretty fun systems there. In 2016, when the Vive launched, I demoed it at a Microsoft store. The first thing that I played was they had like this demo with like underwater whale going past you, and then Space Pirate Trainer. I think there was one other thing, but Space Pirate Trainer just blew my mind. I was like, oh my gosh, this is pretty fascinating. Taking a slight step back, when I was at Virginia Tech, I took a class in virtual environments in 2007. They had a system called The Cave. which is a virtual reality room where at Virginia Tech, they basically sort of had like four surfaces, right? So you have two walls to the side, a wall in front of you, and then the floor. And they rear project onto all the walls and then they project down onto the floor and you're wearing these active shutter glasses that are basically like blocking one eye or the other and it's synced with the projector so at any given time you're seeing something different out of each eye which gives you stereo vision. And the super cool thing about it is you can still see your hands, you can still see your full body. So it's this kind of interesting mixed reality setup. But you're in a full virtual reality environment, wherever you look, it's like full virtual reality. And you got about a 10 by 10 area to like kind of explore. So I worked on that. So I've been kind of exposed to VR through that. And I remember using it being like, this is the most amazing technology in the world, but there's no way that people are ever going to have one of these in their house. So like, it's so far from being a consumer thing. And then when the Vive launched in 2016, I was like, Oh my God, this is crazy. Like I could have this in my house. So I immediately bought a gaming PC. I was like a Mac guy, bought a gaming PC, bought the Vive, bought the Oculus Rift, just like got a whole room in my house, you know, dedicated to it, installed everything I could find, played it and would show everyone who came over, like how amazing this was. Everybody was blown away, but that was it. Like, there was so much friction to turn on the computer and get it set up and probably have to install new drivers and then restart. Half the time it would work, half the time it wouldn't, and the cord that I just never ended up really using it other than to explore new apps. I just never had a reason to keep using it. In 2016, I was like, well, this space is really interesting, but it's just not quite there yet. It's just way too high friction and let's see what happens. And then in 2017, Apple releases ARKit. And historically, it was just like, well, if Apple releases something, then there's probably something going on here. So I was like, what can I build in AR? I was itching to get out of the e-commerce space. I had done my work there, learned a lot, had some fun, but it was just like, It wasn't soul work, it was just work. And when ARKit came out, I was just trying to think of different ideas. I really wanted it to be something consumer-friendly and I wanted it to be a tool, not a toy. A lot of the AR stuff was just pretty gimmicky. The glasses project I'd worked on was really cool because it was like a utility and it could actually create value. And I was playing around a golf and hitting it really well, you know, had continued to play golf through high school and college. And I was hitting it really well, but I was missing a lot of my putts. And I was pretty convinced that I just wasn't reading the greens very well. So greens have slope, which means you never really are hitting it straight at the hole. It's always going to like turn one way or the other, and they can be very subtle. And if you get it wrong, then you're, you're going to miss the putt. So while I was playing this round, I just thought, Whoa, it'd be really cool if I could use AR. to like read the green and then show me the line from the ball to the hole. And, uh, I was like, man, I wonder if the data is good enough. Like, you know, the computer vision stuff we did to capture your face was amazing. So it makes me think that this should be an even simpler problem. And, uh, I ended up taking a week off of work and building a prototype and capturing the data for a single green on a single golf course. And at the end of the week, I was able to get all the pieces together to kind of show the slope of the green and predict the line of the putt very, very, very hacky, but far enough where I was like, okay, I think this can work. I'm all in, I'm going to do this. And ended up putting in like two months notice to get through the holiday season at Wikibuy since that was such a big time of year. And then at the beginning of 2018, I went full-time and started what was called Golf Scope at the time, built out this AR app. That actually worked. I did all the engineering myself. I hired a contractor, got Jonathan to invest a very small amount as like an angel investor. I didn't pay myself for anything. It was like, I'm just going to see how far I can take this. Launched mid 2018, got featured by Apple. It was like front and center, top of the app store, like big banner, top of the AR section, top of the sports section. I've got app of the day for that. And it was like a subscription product and it was just too hard to get people to use it. So after about a year of trying kind of everything, running ads, like doing everything I could think of, it was just too hard to get people to use it. And frankly, when I was playing golf, like I was kind of hesitant to use it myself. Cause there's this like social stigma. So I was like, okay, that was a cool idea, but like, it's not the big idea. And thankfully that same time the quest one had just launched. So I went and demoed the quest one, like just before launch, sort of before it was released, someone I knew had one and I tried it and I was pretty skeptical going in. Cause I was like, ah, I've tried VR. Like how much different could this be? Like the power is going to be just a joke compared to a PC. And I tried it and just the seamlessness of putting it on and being able to hand it over to a friend and then putting it on and pass through. And like the whole experience was like, oh man, for 400 bucks, like this is pretty interesting. So that just coincided perfectly with the fact that like the business that I had built and now I had hired a few people and still wasn't paying myself and had accrued some debt to run the business. I was like, okay, well, we've got nothing to lose. So let's just pivot a hundred percent into VR. Like this other business isn't working whatsoever. And we had, you know, really good putting physics engine at this time. So it was all built directly for the iPhone, like in objective C and sort of native. supported it all over to Unity, which wasn't too bad, and got a demo working where you could hit putts on Hole 7 at Pebble Beach. They had just played the US Open there. It felt really good. Hitting putts in VR just felt really good. We took the controller, and took like a bike clamp for attaching like a flashlight to your bike and like got the controller attached directly to a putter. Cause I was like, you have to feel the way to the putter. Like it won't work with just the controller. So we got that set up. So you're holding an actual putter hitting putts. We showed it to a bunch of golfers. Everyone thought, you know, it was amazing. It worked really well. This is super cool. But prior to showing them a demo, everyone just looked at me like with blank stares, like, I don't get it. Like, is it WeGolf? Like, how's this going to work? Like, what do you want me to do? Like, I don't know anything about VR, but this seems crazy. So it was another one of those situations where it's like, if we're trying to build a tool for golfers, like the marketing is going to be impossible for this. Like they have no idea what it's like to be inside of VR. So, we met with Oculus during Oculus Connect 6, OC6, and showed them a demo. Thankfully, two of the guys that we met with were like huge golf fanatics. We took Tiger Woods, like four putts from the US Open that year on that hole seven of pebble, and they had watched it, they were big Tiger fans, so they got to hit those putts and play this demo while we're kind of pitching them on like the idea. And they were really excited about it and thought that it was a really good application. At that time, there wasn't really a great golf experience out there. So there was kind of a gap. And they brought the store guy who ran the committee for approving content. We showed it to him and he's basically like, this is really cool. If you can just figure out how to turn it into a game, we can approve it for the story. Cause we really want a good golf experience, but like if it's a training aid or like a golf centric thing, like it probably isn't a great fit for what we're doing right now. So we were like, absolutely, totally willing to turn it into a game. We'd love to be on the store. So we came up with the branding of pro putt, you know, putting focus. We wanted to build these sort of putting courses that were similar to a real golf course, but also putting centric. So not, you know, not the full length. And we came up with a demo. We showed it to some folks at Topgolf. We really thought having Topgolf involved in some way would be great because they had proven that like casual golf was like a thing that was gaining traction and Topgolf's audience has never been core golfers. And we figured we had an opportunity to do something similar and leverage their brand. So we showed it to top golf, formed a partnership with top golf in late 2019, launched pro putt by top golf in mid 2020. And that was yet kind of the start of what ultimately brought us to golf plus.
[00:20:38.350] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, that's a lot of great context to see where you're at now. And I know just within the last couple of weeks, you announced a new round of funding and a collaboration with a number of different big names stars that I know like Tom Brady and Steph Curry and others as well, but that you have also had a partnership with the PGA, the Professional Golfing Association. and having actual golf courses. And so I just had a chance to play through a round of golf and the different types of top golf and the putting aspect as well. And so you have been able to transform this into a game and you're able to use the swing of the controller, but also have these peripherals. So I guess the first question I have is that when you're doing the physics like this, I did a whole round of a novice. I played one round of golf in my life and I probably got like double par or something like that. I was like terrible. But in this one round of novice golf, I did pretty good. You know, it was like maybe a few over pars, like way better than I would have done. And then I started to sort of play around a little bit with the amateur. And it was like a lot more like my actual experience was a lot harder to control it. And I didn't have a chance to try the pro, but I imagine that it's even more So you seem to have like a different way of onboarding people into the difficulty of golf so that you're able to give them the experience of golf of not like completely being terrible at it. So that the first experience of golf, when people go out, I'm sure is like, they feel like they suck pretty bad. And then to give them the experience of being decent and then, you know, have different layers of making it more difficult, more challenging. So I'd love to hear a little bit of that process that you went through of trying to calibrate from your own experience of golf versus trying to get that the closest you could to be accurate to where you are at as a amateur golfer. You're not a professional golfer, but someone who is a big enthusiast, but then add to that pro level to get it even more accurate to like the highest levels. And then Don to simplified it into something that is more for people who are just beginning. So I'd love to hear about that tuning of the difficulty level, because that seemed to be a key thing. The closer that you can get it, You could just use your controller without the peripheral, but when you add the peripheral, you're getting a little bit more of the weight distribution that is a little bit more accurate, but you're able to maybe measure the swing. And then you always have like the Wii Sports thing where it's a 3DOF sort of approximation where you could just sort of flick your wrist and get the equivalent of something. And so I was able to kind of do that as well, but also kind of use my full arms. And I didn't use a peripheral, but you have different layers of which people could play it. And so I'd love to hear that process of as you were trying to tune that, how you're able to calibrate it and get it to the point where you felt like it was matching your play, but also making it so it wasn't like impossible to be decent.
[00:23:21.758] Ryan Engle: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that we're still trying to get better at, but I do think to your point, it's one of the most difficult things about golf in the real world is there are no bumpers. Like there's no, you know, bumper bowling version of golf. I mean, I guess you could argue mini golf is as close as you can get to that. And then top golf is nice. Cause you're just kind of hitting out and you're not having to chase the ball, but in real golf, it's just brutal. I mean, you hit a bad shot and then like, You have to go find your ball. It's like the most embarrassing thing in the world. And people are waiting behind you and people are waiting in front of you. And it's just, you know, it's just a really intimidating activity. So our mission as a company is like, I'm obsessed with golf. My dad got me into golf. I've had some of the best experiences of my life on the golf course, I played competitively in high school. And I just think it's one of the greatest activities in the world. Once you kind of get to know it and like, can get past that initial friction. So for our company as a whole, like we don't consider ourselves a BR studio or a game studio or, or anything like that. We consider ourselves to be a golf technology company. And our goal is to make golf more accessible, and our goal is to help people fall in love with the feeling of playing golf, ideally with other people, and fall in love with it such that they're willing to get past the friction of actually learning how to play it in real life. We want people to start in VR and ultimately play in real life, because that's kind of the pinnacle of the experience. So with that in mind, it became pretty clear pretty quickly when we, we got a prototype working and, you know, of course show it to golfers and they know how to hit putts and they know how to hold the club and they know how to do everything. And they're hitting shots and like, this is amazing. It does what I think it should do. And then, you know, we give it to someone who's never really played golf before and they don't really know how to hold the club and they don't really know how to hit shots. And, and they're just kind of like smashing the ball and it's going like 40 feet past the hole. And they're like, This is great. It's like golf and I hate golf. It's like, it's, it's not, it's too realistic. So we're like, okay, that's actually really good feedback. Cause the majority of people with VR headsets definitely aren't golfers. So after that experience, it was like, man, what can we do to like give people a better experience of their, you know, first interaction with golf. And it's like, ultimately the thing that gets a lot of people stuck on golf is it's a con it's a word they've even created in the golf industry called shot euphoria. It's the idea that a single shot where it just works and it goes where you expect it to go and the ball ends up close to the hole, potentially in the hole, like a long putt or a chip or whatever. It creates this dopamine release that's better than anything you can imagine. It's like being in the zone in a sport. It's this real measured emotional result. And we wanted to figure out, is there a way for us to create that? And in order to create that, you also have to convince somebody that it is due to their shot, right? So if you set it up so every shot goes in and they know that it shouldn't have gone in, that's no fun. You get to the slot machine that always wins and it's fun for a second and then it's like, okay, this is not exciting anymore. So we wanted to like really tune it so that like, if you hit a bad shot, it's still going to be bad, but it's not going to be as bad. And to get the ball in, you still have to hit like a pretty good shot. So we wanted to set it up where it was like, we could give it to these people. And they would all say, wow, I'm just making so many more putts. This is amazing. But they couldn't fully understand why. There's a reason to believe. They're like, are you helping me? I can't quite tell. I think the game that does an amazing job, and actually this was massive inspiration for how we did it, is Pistol Whip. The first time I played Pistol Whip, like I'm in there and I'm shooting and I'm like convinced that I am just the best marksman in the world and that there's no help whatsoever. And I'm just like nailing everybody. And then I see the settings and there's one that's like, you know, turn off help or whatever. And I do that and I just like can't get past like I'm just terrible. And I was like, Oh my God, they totally convinced me that I was so good at this game when like, in fact, it was just a little bit of help. And I was like, I wonder if we could do that with our shots. So we ended up building it out for pro putt and we had been pro putt. We just had amateur mode and pro mode. Then when we moved to golf plus and did the full swing thing, we kind of started with like effectively, you know, novice mode and pro mode. And the difference is in novice mode, we have like an intended target that you're probably aiming at, like middle of the fairway or the green or whatever. And if you hit the menu button, you can even change like where your sort of shot target is aiming. And that tells us exactly the shot that you are trying to hit. So now we know what you're trying to do, where you want the ball to end up. And then what we do is right when you hit the ball. So way, you know, physics work in golf is there's the face angle, the angle of the actual club face. Right. And then there's the path of the club. And those are the only two things that really have any impact. So the path of the club includes the speed at which it's moving. So, you know, if you're golf balls here and the path is coming across, like across, it's to create spin and it's going to cause the ball to veer off. Same if you go the other way, it veers the other way. Then the clubface just determines which direction the ball is starting and how high it's going to go and that type of a thing. We set it up so that as soon as you hit the ball, we know what should happen based on your clubface and your path. We also know what you told us you want to happen, and we have a system that, depending on the difficulty, sucks it closer to reality. The one thing I didn't want to mess with was physics while the ball was in the air. If the ball starts moving unnaturally towards a target, like there is a magnet sucking it there, I was like, that's just going to look fake. That would never happen in real life. But at the moment of impact, it happens so fast. You're swinging so fast that it's very easy for us to just nudge it in the right direction. And for people to kind of be like, Oh yeah, that totally could have happened based on my swing. And in novice, it nudges it a lot in an amateur, it nudges it a little bit. And in pro it doesn't do any help whatsoever. You don't even have the shot guide. Like you are a hundred percent on your own. So we started demoing it with people and people who had never played golf could play novice, you know, kind of like yourself and like, be like, Oh man, this is cool. This is probably what it feels like to be good at golf. And I'm hitting some shots and it's, you know, ending up close to the hole and I'm making some putts and making some birdies and like, that feels pretty good. But you know, you probably recognize like, this is better than I should be. Something's going on. And then you're like, Oh, there's difficulty. You try amateur and you're like, Oh, okay, wait a minute. Like, there's a leveling up to be done here. And then yeah, once you try pro, you're like, okay, golf is really hard as it should be. So for us, it really was about how can we create this shot euphoria where there's still a reason to believe that you're controlling the result of the ball, but we're also like the odds of you hitting a good shot are much higher. So you're more likely to understand why there's some appeal.
[00:30:39.812] Kent Bye: Yeah, I definitely had that experience of playing that round where I was, like, realizing the type of nudging that was happening, and then when I played the challenge, which is a hole that you have to hit over the water, and then I kept either hitting it too short or too far, and then I played it probably 130 times and got it on the green less than 10 times. to even get like a legitimate putt. Like it was off the green, I had to chip it. So I was not able to do the first challenge, but I felt like that difficulty level, that was probably closer to the difficulty level that I had when I've actually played golf. You know, just the way that you have the onboarding and the tutorial that you have in the beginning. When I had the very first shot, I think I hit a hole in one. And I think that was probably a nudging, or maybe not. I don't know.
[00:31:19.977] Ryan Engle: Oh, wow. You're not supposed to know that.
[00:31:21.498] Kent Bye: Really? Yeah. Okay. My very first shot, I hit a hole in one.
[00:31:25.741] Ryan Engle: And I was like, we nudge it, we nudge it, but we actually set it up so that you shouldn't hit a hole in one. Cause like, we didn't want to handle that case. So that's, that's awesome. That's all you.
[00:31:34.344] Kent Bye: Yeah. Okay. So I have hit a hole in one in my tutorial, but I figured it was like, oh, they're probably just nudging me to get this shot for you. But I mean, I didn't know that term, but I had experienced that just even in the tutorial to sort of hit that one shot, but to get that onboarding and you know, you can. look at the green you look at the place that you're going to aim it you can have like the god mode where you have the overview and also it was automatically selecting each of the clubs i should use depending on how far it was so i felt like there's a way and just like casually playing where all the stuff is taking care of me but it's also training me to be able to have okay this is the club i should have used because this is the range that it is at, and then you're able to sort of start to see some of the distance. There's a level at which I could see people playing this enough to kind of learn what the range for each of these clubs were. When they do actually get out in the golf course, they have a better sense of when they're there to be able to do it. And it's interesting to me to hear how your experience started with augmented reality and pivoted to VR, but how at the end of the day, the greens and having the ability to push the button to see what the green topology is. And with the guidance in the novice, you have it so that it's still pretty much get it pretty close. But as you level up, I could see how you're creating this app. But eventually, this is an app that I could see would be a pretty compelling augmented reality experience as well. And I don't know if you've done any experimentations with the Quest Pro to be able to see if the mixed reality pass is able to do that same type of computer vision, but I could see how you're on that path of having something that is training for people to have this other experience in physical reality, but that there's still a virtual component and to be able to also play with your friends and have the social experience of the golf, but then also to have the physical experience as well. So I'd love to hear any thoughts in terms of both the onboarding and all the different features that you're doing in terms of the VR design that is also, you know, in some ways making the golf more accessible, this mission statement that you have. training people to understand the distance management, being able to read the lies. It's really hard, I think, in VR to replicate the 3D spatial experience of the green, but to do the overlay, it adds a lot of the things that you may be able to see in physical reality that are more difficult to convey those more complex geometries within the virtual environment. But still, I mean, maybe if you get down and start to look around. But I'd love to hear just your strategy as you start to have this mission of onboarding people how you're able to kind of create the virtual experience, but still subtly train people all the basics that they need to do in order to have the physical experience of golf.
[00:34:16.057] Ryan Engle: Totally. Yeah. You know, onboarding is such an important part of any experience that you have. And it's always really hard to find the balance between like, we want to teach you everything about this game and show you all the controls and all the like little details that are going to make this game great. But also recognizing that like people potentially just bought the game and they kind of want to get to the good stuff as fast as possible. And a lot of people want to skip onboarding, you know, and just like be like, well, if you can't teach me this stuff while I'm playing, then like your game sucks. And, you know, I think VR, it's even harder in VR because there aren't that many conventions that have been established. Like a lot of different VR games use different buttons to do different things and different games have different needs. So we're actually in the process of building a whole new onboarding experience that we think starts to move it even further in the direction that'll help people get familiar including the ability to skip onboarding and actually just have what we call caddy mode, where as you're playing your first round, you can get tips in context, even more detailed tips and stuff like that. Onboarding is one of those things that I feel like will never be done with and there's always room for improvement. But what we really wanted to do was Sort of appreciate the fact that a lot of the people that are buying the game may not be golfers. So we want to explain everything as simply as possible and help people understand that like, yeah, a nine iron is not going to go as far as a five iron. And in order to come up with those distances that we have in our game for each club, we actually took the PGA tour averages. for professional golfers and mapped those to the clubs. Obviously the speed at which you swing still has a complete impact on how far the ball goes, but because you're holding a controller, it's really easy to swing way faster than you could ever swing a real club. I mean, faster than the fastest person in the world could ever swing a real club because you can flick it and whatnot. So we kind of put constraints on as to how far it could go, given it's probably moving a lot faster than it should be. So we wanted to constrain everything to kind of align with, you know, reality and align with the better players in the world so that you could get a feel for what that's like. And then to your point, like one of the big things for us was like building it in a way that it could eventually translate to an AR experience. Given the start in AR, I'm still very, very bullish on AR being a massive part of the XR universe, the XR future. I don't see a big distinction between AR and VR in terms of like, ultimately, I hope we have a device that can do both. And they look a lot closer to the glasses that you're wearing right now than the headsets that we currently have. I think that's going to take a lot of time. And I think getting AR to the point where you can do legitimate spatial stuff, especially at long distance, like on a golf course, I think that's going to take quite a bit of time. And the idea that someone would be willing to wear something while they're playing golf and it not get in the way. I mean, most people don't even wear sunglasses when they play golf because of the tiny bit of lens distortion that can affect your depth perception. So golf is one of those activities that I think will take some time to kind of have the hardware catch up to things, but we wanted to build it so that it really did feel like, like most of the time when you're looking around, you're not seeing digital stuff. You're seeing the golf course, you're seeing the flag, you're seeing the trees, you're seeing the stuff that makes you feel like you're on a golf course versus these like high tech overlays. And like, and that's why we kind of hide most things behind the like side, the grip trigger, so that you can still get the information that you want. But even that information is like very, very sort of limited. And we tried to kind of make it fit in as naturally as possible. So that one, I sort of look at VR as like a great test as to like what is going to work in AR. if you've got this amazing VR world and a golf course is like a massive space, if we can make something that works well in VR and still makes you feel like you're on a golf course, then that should translate pretty well to AR once the technology catches up. So we're constantly trying to push how can we hide a lot of the stuff that reminds your brain that you're not actually on a real golf course, that like this is digital and it's not completely fitting in with the environment. So I think over time, I'm hoping that like all of our UIs and stuff actually just start to get even simpler versus like sort of more complex and more like sci-fi, because I do think that'll translate better to AR. And I also think that the way that I look at it is we should be in the best position of any company to build a great AR experience because we're effectively already testing AR for people within our VR experience, if you consider They're on a golf course and that's like the default experience. And then we're just using this information overlay the same way that we would for AR. And if we can make that work seamlessly and ideally over time, you don't even sort of need a controller. You can do it with voice and hand tracking and that type of a thing. Then I think we're going to be in a great position for when the hardware is ready for AR. And then, yeah, kind of to your point with the green reading, as I mentioned, like the impetus to start the company in the first place is in real life, it's still really hard to read the greens for me anyway. And for a lot of professional golfers, I mean, any professional golf tournament, you're going to see golfers miss putts. And like, if you watch their reaction, they're going to, they'll have hand gestures that are like, How did it go that way? And it's like, it's pretty funny because it's just gravity. Like the golf course has contours. There's no trickery happening. There are no magnets, but it is really hard to read the subtleties of these breaks. And that's why we wanted to give you this interesting overlay that I think, especially for people that haven't played golf as much, or just haven't like studied green reading. we wanted to give you a really cool and intuitive way to kind of visualize how, what a slope even is and how it might affect your golf ball. So we kind of use this system where you see the contours moving because at first we just showed contours and they weren't moving. And it was really hard to tell like, wait, is that like going uphill or downhill? Cause they're really subtle. But as soon as you see them moving, they're always moving down, which is like kind of like water flowing. Right. So, you know, oh, if the contour is moving this way, that means the ball is going to kind of get pushed that way by gravity. So, yeah. So we, we kind of tried to just build something that would feel interesting to a golfer who has looked at contours and seen green books and stuff like that, but also like very intuitive to a non-golfer that just like has never had to deal with slope and green reading, but could very quickly understand. And then obviously in novice mode, we just straight up show you the line from the ball to the hole so that you don't even have to take the time to sort of understand where to aim.
[00:41:19.560] Kent Bye: Yeah. One of the other experiences of playing for the first time is that you default to a course that is a PGA course that's like well-known to people who are into watching golf. And so I'd love to hear your process of collaborating with the PGA and what's the process of getting licensing to be able to recreate a course that, you know, as I was looking up prices for how much it costs to play around a golf. It could, you know, on average, it was like $36 or something, but it could go from like $18 to a hundred dollars. But then sometimes it said that it could cost up to a hundred thousand dollars to get like access to a club to even play on the course. And so you're talking about an audience that's already willing to pay a lot of money to get access to these courses and that you're giving a value proposition of saying, we're going to have you buy this application and then maybe sell access to these other courses. But what's the process of licensing these and the collaboration with PGA and the impact of being able to have people who are maybe fans of golf and watching different tournaments, and then be able to actually step onto the green themselves to get more of a spatial experience of what they've seen in a 2D version of that. Maybe they've never been there, but they're able to get this more embodied experience of actually being on some of the courses that they're familiar with and have a history of different tournaments that have played there.
[00:42:37.464] Ryan Engle: Yeah, that's a great question. So I didn't even know this until more recently, but there are actually two entities that are sort of called the PGA. There's the PGA of America, which is who we're currently partnered with. They employ like PGA professional golfers that teach you how to play golf. And then they host the PGA championship, which is like where Valhalla was played. And then there's the PGA tour and the PGA tour is the group that runs sort of the professional golf league, basically. So it's the one that's actually a little bit more similar to like NFL or NBA, and it has tournaments every week and then playoffs at the end and that type of a thing. So we're partnered with the PGA of America that just has one tournament every year, but they do. They own Valhalla golf course and they own a few other golf courses and they host this one major tournament every year. After we had gotten some traction from ProPod and we launched the new Topgolf venue, we got connected with their chief innovation officer, Arjun, and sort of showed him a demo. And they're constantly looking at different ways to grow the game of golf. their mission as a company is also to just like grow the game of golf and introduce people to their professionals that can teach them and help them learn how to play golf. And when we showed them this, you know, we were fully aligned on kind of the missions of the company. We showed them a demo, they thought it was really cool. So we formed that partnership. And with that partnership came our ability to use the Valhalla golf course, like as part of that partnership. And they're a small equity owner in the company. And that was kind of the deal that we did. The other course that we had at launch was wolf Creek golf course. And that one's pretty interesting. Cause it's about, I think it's like an hour outside of Vegas. And it's like very much a destination resort golf course where, you know, people go play it's in these big Nevada mountains where like, you know, in the desert where you definitely should not have a golf course, you know, like totally crazy terrain, huge, like a hundred foot elevation changes between the start and the end of the hole. It just looks like a golf course that was designed for a video game and it was in some of the old golf video games. We showed them what we're working on and got connected to them and they were really excited because they really look at this as an opportunity to expand their brand and to expose more people and potentially new people to their course. Then we've been working really hard to get more of these deals done. A lot of the licensing deals are us reaching out to the owner of the golf course, explaining the product, explaining the traction that we have, kind of explaining the value prop to them, which is one, we'll just straight up pay you a yearly licensing fee to get the course to get approval. And then two, we're able to get all the data that we need to recreate the course accurately without even stepping foot on the course. So through different survey data that's available, there are just so many different companies that do these LIDAR scans from above. And then there are golf companies that actually will go out there and very millimeter accurate scan the golf greens because they create these books for professional golfers to use to prepare for tournaments. So through all these different data sources that we're not responsible for, we're able to collect all the data that we need. So we can go to a golf course and say, look, it's going to take us about six weeks to get this course built. We will do all of the work. We will pay you a yearly fee and your course will be played by hundreds of thousands of people. Would you like to do it or not? And any of the resort courses tend to be pretty open to the idea because it's like free exposure. It's really cool. It's something they can kind of offer their resort members and they want to be part of the future of the game. For the more private courses, it's a little bit more difficult to have a sell because they're like, well, we're a private course. We already have a 10-year waiting list to get on this. Why exactly should we do this? It's going to potentially diminish the value for our members who find it an exclusive experience. So the golf world is kind of, kind of has a couple of different ideologies, I guess you could say. So we're kind of working to bridge that gap and figure it out. But the good news is there are about 30,000 golf courses in the world. So there's kind of no shortage of courses to add. And we're constantly working on new tooling and growing our course team to support adding as many new courses as we can.
[00:47:10.371] Kent Bye: So as you're talking about taking these actual courses that exist in physical reality, I was reading one of the articles that came out within the last couple of weeks that was talking about your investment and that there was actually a professional golfer who was an investor, but that was not really into technology much at all, but yet had all these ideas for these ideal courses that he wanted to design, but never had the chance to. So I thought that was really fascinating that you were able to potentially work with these professional golfers who they themselves wanted to have this experience of a course, but yet takes a lot of money and energy and to actually invest in something like that and to build it. And so I'd love to hear about that aspect because, well, first of all, your investment that you have with like Steph Curry and Tom Brady and the list around of investment that you had announced, but this other aspect of the ability to design the ultimate virtual courses that maybe in some ways could never actually exist in reality, but push the limits for what's fun to do in the sport of golf.
[00:48:06.169] Ryan Engle: Yeah, totally. So yeah, we did the fundraising round and one of our investors is Ben Crenshaw and Ben Crenshaw is, you know, an older generation golfer. He's won majors. So he's a very accomplished golfer during his generation. And then he moved on to doing golf course architecture. There's a two part core Crenshaw, he's the Crenshaw part and they've designed some of the most incredible golf courses in the world. And they just have a very, they have like a pretty unique style to their courses and they're just coveted and they really strike a chord with like you know, people that are super into course design and that type of a thing. And he's not a technology person. So when they go design courses, like they're just, you know, drawing on paper and going out there with like big machinery and just moving dirt until like they get it into the right sort of way that they have it in their head, which is just mind blowing to me as a technology person. And when we talked to him about what we're able to do in VR and the fact that we're able to kind of build a course in, you know, four to six weeks from scratch. And we don't have any of the real world constraints of like, like for golf course, it's all about, you know, drainage and like, is this even a location that could support a golf course? Are people going to travel here? Like where's the closest airport? Like what's the, the logistical constraints of it, and then just the cost to maintain it, and the type of grass, and the type of climate, and there are just so many real-world constraints. It's very expensive, obviously, and time-consuming, and then there's a lot of maintenance, and it's a big deal. When we started talking to him, he's like, oh man, I've got books of designs that I think are some of my greatest designs that have never been built. because of one reason or another. They shared one of the books with us and they're like, we got this thing fully approved, all the money, location. It's on the coast in California, beautiful location. He's like, I think this is the best design I've ever built. And at the last minute, there were like a group of surfers that would kind of walk through what would be the golf course to get down to their surf location. And they put up a big stink because they thought that they wouldn't be able to get down there anymore. And then they kind of got like conservation group involved. And, you know, golf courses do use a lot of water. There's an environmental impact, right? So, so basically at the very last minute, this golf course didn't get approved and they ran into an issue and it never got built, but it's fully designed. Everything's kind of scoped out the location and everything. And, you know, for him, the idea that we could do this in VR and there would be no environmental impact. And, you know, we'd be able to build it in a matter of months for obviously a fraction of the cost. He thought that was super cool. And then we talked about the idea of over time, we really want to build a course creator tool. So right now our team can use our tools to build these courses, but it's a pretty involved process and it requires, you know, some expertise and everything like that. But over time, we think it would be amazing if you could put on your headset, hop into just kind of like, okay, I want to be in a desert or in the forest or in a jungle or on top of Mount Everest or like, you know, on the moon or whatever. And then just be able to just start moving land with your hands. You just grab it and move it however you want and say, this is where the green is going to be, throw a pond over here, throw some trees over here. And you're just sort of painting a golf course or taking it even further and using... I'm fascinated by what's happening in the AI space. So the idea that you could just give a prompt and it's like, I want a golf course that looks like pebble beach meets St. Andrews with bunkering like band and dunes that's on the Pacific Northwest in very wooded area. And then just like massively exaggerate the elevation changes and make it inspired by Ben Crenshaw's design. And it's like, here's your course and you're like, oh my God, that's really awesome. Okay. Erase that pond over there and like add one over there, but make it a little, you know, more interesting or, or put a massive tree right in the middle of this fairway. And it's like, you can just totally imagine over time, it's going to be to the point where you just can literally say it or take a gesture and it'll produce it for you. So then it really just becomes more of a limitation to like, what is your imagination capable of? And can you envision a golf course that's going to be really fun to play? And as we get more of these and we're able to collect more training data, because we're seeing which courses people play and which courses they're not playing, we can even start kind of training the AI based on that to know like, this is a hole people really like, this is a hole people don't like. okay, AI, learn that and build more of these holes and less of these holes. So I think the idea that we can sort of democratize golf course architecture is really exciting and really exciting to someone like Ben Crenshaw, who I think fully recognizes that His position as a former PGA pro golfer and major winner and brought up with the sport allowed him to get into golf architecture where for your average person, it's just like such a crazy ask to sort of aspire to be a golf architect. So I'm a huge fan of just creating better tools that help democratize things like that. And I think as a company, one of our bucket list goals is that one day we'll have a purely VR design course that will make it to the real world.
[00:53:59.137] Kent Bye: I'd love to hear the process of also getting folks like Tom Brady and Steph Curry involved in the investment round, because these are, you know, pretty big sports stars in the realm of basketball and football, but yet, you know, a lot of these athletes also enjoy golf. And so how did they come across your Golf Plus app and how'd they go from there to be able to then be investors in your next round?
[00:54:20.223] Ryan Engle: Yeah. So, you know, we went through the holidays last year and it was a pretty stellar holiday season for VR as a whole. We're hoping to see the same this holiday season, but you never know. And after that, you know, we started to get approached by just sort of traditional, more traditional VCs, especially those in the VR space that were like, Hey, are you raising money? Like, you know, are you interested in investment? And. At the time, you know, we've been operating lean and we're cashflow positive. So we weren't really thinking about investment, but as soon as you start to get inbound, it really starts to get you thinking like, Hmm, maybe it is, maybe this isn't a bad idea. So started to think about it and then start reaching out. And then I'm a huge fan of working backwards from what I think is like a best case scenario. It's like in a perfect world, if I could snap my fingers, what would be a great fundraising ground for us? And it became pretty clear pretty quickly that for us, it was less about getting as much money as possible because that wasn't the biggest constraint that we had. It was more about finding strategic partners that we thought would help you know, I think if we really think about what we're trying to do with golf is like, we're kind of trying to change the perception of the game, because I think that's like one of the big issues around its growth is like, we don't want golf to be perceived as this like old stuffy, overly traditional, like elitist sport. We wanted to be perceived as this really cool, fun activity that you can play with your friends and is great no matter what your age or skill level is, and we want to just make it very welcoming. So very quickly, it became clear that we wanted to get a couple great professional golfers to add legitimacy because ultimately we can't grow golf. If golfers don't consider it a legitimate golf experience, they just like, then it's a video game and it's not aligning with our mission. So first and foremost, we wanted to find some golfers that would add legitimacy. And we got, you know, Ben Crenshaw and Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth involved. It was sort of a lengthy process. I don't know how to perfectly summarize it, but let's just say that we had a ton of different meetings, gave a ton of demos, a lot of back and forth to finally, you know, sort of get to the point where they were pretty bought into the idea that this was going to be good for golf and that like the business in general was a good investment. Most of these guys have sort of an investment portion of their entity. Rory has invested in other companies. He's been very successful off the course in investments, super smart guy. Jordan Speed, the same thing. Jordan Speed's dad had been doing some investing and some business stuff even prior to him becoming a professional golfer. So we sort of went through their business teams to like convince them that this was like a good business opportunity, but then also pull on the, like, we think this is great for golf and that, you know, by them investing, it does even make the company sort of more valuable. So it's like, everybody wins. And then once we got them involved, these professional athletes are like, they know each other, right? So, you know, Tom Brady knows Rory, Steph Curry knows Rory and Jordan Spieth. They know each other. They all play golf together. They all love golf. And we actually had the opportunity to briefly meet with Tom Brady in, I think it was probably March. It was just the perfect environment. We didn't know he was even going to be there, but we were just at somebody's house that happened to be a good friend of Tom's. Tom steps out and we're just there. It's just me and my coworker and Tom Brady and two other people just in a house, just totally casual. So we just jump on the opportunity to be like, you know, Tom, would you like to try this? And he had just played a round of golf earlier that day. So, you know, it was already fresh on his mind and he's like, yeah, okay. I'll like, I'll play a whole, like, you know, let's make it quick kind of thing. Like just being, being nice to us. And we managed to get the sons of the guy's house who we were at. They happen to be players of our game in general. Like they were just fans of the game in general. So we got them online and multiplayer and we threw Tom Brady in with them and he knew the sons cause they're family friends. So he sees them there and they start, you know, talking as if they're on the golf course, talking a little bit of trash. They're all like competitive, you know, and Tom's like, all right, I'll play one hole. And they play the first hole and I think they beat him. So he's like, all right, we got to play one more. And this, this repeats for like six holes. And then he's like, finally takes it off. You know, he's like, you know, sweating a little bit, like, like what happened the first time you play. And the first thing he says when he takes it off is like, this is how I'm going to get my son interested in golf. just totally unprompted. So he just kind of immediately saw the opportunity for this to just like change the lens of how golf is perceived, especially by his son, who is like a younger demographic, not thinking about golf. So that, that was, you know, for Tom, that was kind of it. And then, you know, for Steph, we didn't get the chance to meet him directly, but we were able to connect with his team. His team members had played it. They were big fans of it. Steph Curry just does so much for sort of underprivileged groups and he's trying to get them more involved in golf and he does a bunch of charity stuff for golf. So he was just totally bought into the idea that this could be good for golf. And next year we're hoping to get even deeper with him and start to build out some things that could really benefit his initiatives. For us, it really came down to finding the linchpins of, if we can get this person, then that creates some momentum to help get the next group. I don't know that any one of these individuals would have necessarily invested solo, but as we started to build momentum, that created I don't want to say necessarily fear of missing out, but it definitely created a like, Oh, okay. If that person's invested, then that's enough proof for me that this is a good idea. And then from our perspective, getting the golfers was great for credibility, but getting the folks like Tom Brady and Steph Curry and Mike Trout, I think that's what we think golf really needs right now is to show that like, these are some of the best athletes in the world. They could be doing whatever they want with their free time and they're choosing to go play golf and pursue this sport. And they're adding a cool factor to golf that we think is just absolutely critical to make it more appealing to a wider audience. So for us, like they just really help with the perception of golf and we want to do whatever we can to kind of help golf's perception. Yeah.
[01:00:59.328] Kent Bye: There's a couple of things that you have built into the app where able to kind of pull up YouTube playlists to watch videos, but also to play music and Spotify and music integration. And I pulled up East forest as a musician that I really enjoy and started to play some of those YouTube videos and playing through, it just felt like, and then when I came back, it was also kind of preloaded again. Cause the first time I played, I didn't have any music. I just played through just to hear what was happening. And it was kind of like, not as emotionally engaging, but then have that music. And then I didn't play any multiplayer, but I know that, you know, walk around mini golf is something that's a huge thing that people are really enjoying. It's kind of more imaginal interpretations of kind of more of a putt-putt type of experience, but that there's a other experiential design of taking you into these other worlds. And it's a huge social thing. And I know there's like you said, people are having these social experiences playing golf, but to have the virtual experience to have some social VR experience that's happening there, and that you've built the app up to the point where you're successful enough. And so I know that you have seen some comments that you've made on Twitter, just in terms of picking out ad buys and promoting it. And so it was really striking me to hear that your first initial experiences of making apps on the iPhone of how so much of it was the marketing. But now you're able to have experience that is compelling. You already have a target market that's already playing golf and have these overlaps of being able to maybe have them come in. And so it feels like you've been able to sort of grow audience. I'd love to hear any other insights you have in terms of types of efforts you've done in either making ad buys or marketing and to kind of get the user base because VR is still in this emergent phase. It sounds like this is a type of app that you're able to maybe go into some of the non-traditional types of places that you're advertising this that maybe go above and beyond what the typical VR gamer. So I'd love to hear some of your strategies there to kind of grow this user base.
[01:02:56.089] Ryan Engle: Yeah. So I think, yeah, my early experiences taught me that like, I am just either just not good at marketing or that marketing is incredibly valuable. And you know, there are people who are really good at it. And that's like part of why we wanted to partner with Topgolf right from the beginning. is like, if we can tie ourselves to a brand that, you know, has done what we're trying to do and they're willing to endorse it, that's some marketing right there. And part of our deal with Topgolf was that they currently do run ads for our game. They run our trailer at every single one of their locations, like on the TVs that are up there. So for us, it's like, yes, this is really important. We need to get the word out there. We need to see, have people seeing Golf Plus around. So that was one side of it. We've definitely done a bunch of experimenting with Facebook ads. We're currently running some. It's really funny, kind of counterintuitive, but attribution just doesn't work very well on the Quest store from a developer perspective. They have an attribution tab, but it has never worked as far as we can tell, which is really ironic given that's how they make all their money on the Facebook side of things. So unfortunately, it's been super hard to justify spending very much on advertising because we have no way of tracking it. When somebody downloads or buys our game and they launch into it, we get their Oculus username and their Oculus ID, but we get nothing about email, or who they are. And I totally understand from a privacy perspective, like I understand why they're doing that, but it does just make it really hard for us to understand where our players are even hearing about the game, how they're getting into it, what's going on there. And that's why like on Twitter, sometimes I'll kind of push back a little bit on like some of the, like the privacy side, I understand, but there's also just a ton of value for developers like, like me, to have just a better understanding of where are our players coming from so that we can do more of that and less of the stuff that's not working. Because right now it's just kind of a mess to try to figure out. So for me, it's all about, I know that there are a group of people that will like this experience. And if we can just target them, then everybody wins. We don't want their personal information. We don't want to start showing them ads for things that they don't care about. But I do think that they might want to know about our experience. So we've been thinking about other ways to do that. And it's been a really interesting marketing position for us. On one hand, it's like, okay, this is obvious. We're a golf game and we should be marketing this to golfers because they're going to love it and that's the lowest hanging fruit. But most golfers don't have VR headsets. So are we trying to sell a $30 game to someone with a VR headset, or are we trying to sell a $400 headset and a $30 game to someone that likes golf? And that's a big difference. Convincing someone to buy a VR headset to buy our game is very different than potentially convincing someone that just wants a fun VR game, or maybe they've played golf a couple of times and they have some light interest, or there are other aspects of it that they find interesting. So we found the most success so far is not really targeting golfers directly because it's just asking so much and really focusing on the people that already have VR headsets. And the reality of it is it's kind of like, Being in the top selling charts and the most popular charts is a self-fulfilling prophecy type of a thing, where once you get into those, you just get so many more eyeballs on your game. It seems like a lot of people look at those charts to determine what to buy. The other thing that we have focused, I'm obsessed with, is our number of reviews and what our our rating star count is. So we've been pushing super hard to get to 10,000 reviews and 4.8 stars because that's such a big signal for people to see that this is an experience that is quality and the review number is really the only, other than looking in top selling, it's the only real way to understand some sort of demand or whatever. So we really focus on the reviews and that side of things. We respond to every single comment that's below five stars that we get, like we respond to. And we take the feedback really seriously. And in many cases, like we'll actually, you know, try to get in touch with the person that left the response and even try to get them in a multiplayer game to better understand what that feedback looks like. And we have this kind of growing list of like what we call like wishlist or quality of life improvements that we can make to the game to like streamline the experience. So I think from a pure marketing perspective, unfortunately, I can't really tell you like what the trick is. Anytime we've run Facebook ads, like the cost per install is okay, but you just run into a saturation issue very quickly. So if we look back historically to the number of total unit sales, I think maybe, I want to say maybe like 3% have been attributed to ads. or any sort of external spend, it is such a tiny amount. The one thing that we have spent a decent amount on, and I think we're about to release our fourth trailer now, that'll be the one that we show. But we have spent a decent amount on our trailers because to me, that's the best I would say almost 100% of the people that buy your game are going to watch at least some portion of your trailer. So to me, that has to be where we spend the most of our marketing effort. It's just on getting the trailer right, on testing different descriptions. We A, B test the tile that's in the store as frequently as we can. And I'm a big believer in the experience that we've built. Ultimately, 95% of the effort at the company goes into the experience itself. That's where we really want to have the impact is people who do buy it and do play it. We want them to like it. We want them to keep playing it. I'm a huge believer in the experience that we've built in. Therefore, I feel incredibly comfortable doing whatever we can on the marketing front to get that experience in front of as many people as possible because I think it's a genuine experience. I'm just a big believer in if I'm not willing to talk up the experience and try to get people excited about it, then who's going to do that? I think it's a great experience and well worth the money and we're not trying to take advantage of anybody. I'm just a big fan of doing whatever we can on the marketing front. But honestly, at this point, I don't think that we haven't found one thing that has worked amazingly well. We're still just trying to crack it, but we are pretty obsessed with how we're performing in top selling, how we're performing in most popular, keeping our review counts up, just the fundamental things that you can't hack your way around.
[01:09:55.416] Kent Bye: Yeah, I noticed that you had an offer that you could go onto your website and get a free course if you leave a review and sign up to get your email. So you can have a little bit more of that context is to get people into your system in a way that you can keep in touch with those audiences. So I thought that that was interesting in the way that you have the ability to have people see the core value of seeing. these different courses, but expanding those courses, giving access to those courses and selling courses or to offer for free to get some of that information. So yeah, just thought that was kind of reflecting what you're saying there in terms of that's actually the best way to for your course. I just a couple more questions to wrap up here. One thing that I keep coming back to is the virtual versus the physical and how I came across a video of somebody who was showing their swing both in the physical swing and a virtual swing and how there was some sort of like swing expert who was like analyzing the swing and noticing how even the virtual way that they were actually having a better swing in the virtual experience versus the physical experience. But you know, the thing that I come back to is that, you know, if someone is golfing in the physical, reality. And they go into the Golf Plus VR experience, and then they play a number of rounds and they go back and play golf. And then what happens if they're actually worse because they have this negative reinforcement of playing your game. But I feel like there's this interesting tension of wanting to onboard people and make things simpler. But yet at the same time, people who are already playing, you don't want to have a negative reinforcement as they play your game and actually get worse because you're kind of teaching them bad habits. in order to do well in your game, that means that they, when they actually play in physical reality, they actually do worse. And so that's an interesting tension there. I'm sure that you have to navigate these different tunings of the novice versus the amateur versus the pro, but I'd love to hear a little bit of like how you navigate that, or how do you, have you, have you experienced the, either a negative reinforcement or a positive reinforcement where you actually feel like you get better, or if you feel like sometimes you get worse, or if it's just golf is a thing where it's already random enough that you can't really ever tell.
[01:11:58.570] Ryan Engle: Yeah, it's a great question. Cause like we definitely went into the VR realm thinking we can use this technology to make you better at golf. Like that was the underlying principle and we wanted to build it as a training aid at this point, I would say it's purely anecdotal. And I would say that what we hear consistently from a lot of players is that the putting in the chipping. So it's called like the short game in golf where you're not doing a full swing, but you're doing these more subtle movements. We have heard consistently that like people are putting better. People are shipping better. Anecdotally. I've noticed that for sure. Like everybody on the team has kind of said that. And it is because it is such a subtle, it's a feel it's called feel and golf is like, how hard should I hit it? Well, there's not an equation to figure that out. You just kind of have to do it a bunch of times and feel what's right. And that's where I think our physics engine is like kind of the most tuned. Cause like I'm a very field player in real life and I built a hundred percent of our physics engine. So I really wanted to get it to feel the way that golf feels to me. And then my co-founder he's been playing since he was a kid. And so we bounce back and forth on a couple of these like small physics tweaks to like really try to get it feeling right for us. So that side of it, I feel pretty confident in like, if you practice putting in, you know, in golf plus, look, you still have to hold a real putter and you still have to practice putting. You can't just like a hundred percent practice in golf plus, and then go to a course and expect to like shoot scratch golf. You still have to play in real life as well. But if you're practicing in golf plus between your real life sessions, I can confidently say, I think for putting and chipping, it'll have a positive impact. For full swing, because of the difference in weight and because of the ability to flick and sort of do some things and because of our help that we give you, I can't say that it's like a positive or negative. I can say for me personally, in building the physics and building out how it all works, I have a much better fundamental understanding of how a golf swing works. and what causes the ball to do what it does, which has been pretty cool. And I'm confident that we can build some tools that help other people understand that at a deeper level as well, which I do think will have a positive impact. But I don't think there's ever going to be a great substitute for holding a pretty accurately weighted club and swinging it the way that you expect to hit a real golf ball. I think we can teach you a lot about like how to bring the club up. And even, you know, we've done some amazing prototypes where we've taken like Rory McIlroy swing. And right now he's rated the number one golfer in the world. So like, he's as good as it gets. And we're able to actually take his swing, capture it in full 3D, put it in avatar with legs, like a full avatar. You can stand in his shoes and watch and see exactly where his body movement is at different positions during the swing, which starts to get fascinating because I went through the process and I was like, oh my God, his hips. are way in a completely different position than mine are at this stage of the swing. And it just like totally, it just kind of broke my mold of like what I thought I was like, I thought I was doing the right thing. And then I kind of see where he's at and it's like, Oh my God, like I'm not, I'm not even close. So I can get my body into that position, like at that moment during the swing and just recognize that I should be feeling things in completely different parts of my body while doing it. So I think there's a huge opportunity for it. we've really tried to stay very focused on the top of the funnel and making the experience, you know, kind of sticky and fun and entertaining, you know, for people that aren't necessarily at the highest level of expertise of golf. We've been focusing almost all of our attention there because we think that's like the biggest opportunity is getting people in and keeping them playing and making it fun over time as we continue to get bigger and more, more true golfers get headsets. We do plan to focus equally on the training side of things, but I just don't think we're there yet because the number of our players that would really want that level, it just doesn't really compete with kind of the more casual players.
[01:16:20.750] Kent Bye: Yeah, I really appreciated the replays that you had because you get an opportunity to see yourself through the swing. And there were people who had a camera and physical reality watching their swings as they're in VR. But there is that challenge of probably needing to have more tracking points to be able to more accurately know where the elbows are and everything, because you have to do a lot of extrapolation for what's essentially one sixth off point that you're tracking with the controller. And then you have all these other variables with your legs and your hips and your whole body that's swinging. I mean, I, I played baseball, so I know that there's a lot of the fundamentals of a swing that you're not able to actually create just by looking at one point. So yeah, I can see how, as you get more computer vision and maybe tracking different aspects and recreating that, then you can start to maybe add those as additional variables, but yeah, just one quick follow up there. Did you actually build your own physics engine completely for this game where you're using unity or all just custom built?
[01:17:15.874] Ryan Engle: Yeah, it's 100% custom, totally proprietary. So we are using Unity, but we're not using any of their physics for the golf portion.
[01:17:24.601] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah. So it's, I watched some of the YouTube videos you had in there and it was just interesting to like, oh, well that's how you get a ball to fade or that's how you get to draw. So you've sort of implemented this angle at which that you're hitting the ball. So yeah, the path and the angle that you're hitting it. So yeah, pretty simple, but very complex, all the things that are in there. So yeah, well, I guess, you know, my final thought is just that it's really, you're kind of like adding all these social dimensions recreating it. And also the ability for people to capture videos and share them, I think is probably over time going to be a big part as well, because people have that shot euphoria that they're sharing on social media. Like, Hey, I just hit a hole in one as I was going through just seeing. So yeah, just the tooling there to be able to share that in all the different social aspects. So it sounds like you've got a lot of things on the pipeline as you continue to grow this out. And I'd just love to hear any sort of final reflections in terms of what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality as a medium is and what it might be able to enable in the context of both.
[01:18:25.294] Ryan Engle: Yeah. Uh, I think in the next I'll use 15 years, I was using 20, but it's been a few years. So I think in the next 15 years, we'll see more golf balls hit in VR than in real life. I also think the number of golf balls hit in real life in 15 years will be higher in 15 years than it is today. So we're not cannibalizing. We're not saying, Oh, people aren't gonna be playing real golf. Instead. They're going to be playing VR. I think that it all adds to the pie, right? It's all additive. We believe that VR can be used to double the size of the entire sport. There are about 25 million people who play golf in the United States now, not including Topgolf, but play rounds of golf in the United States, about 25 million. We think that we can try to get that up to 50 million in the next 20 years through VR because it just makes golf so much more accessible. So I'm a massive believer in VR as kind of a tool to help you understand what the real life experience could be like before you're actually able to experience that. And that's where we get really excited about the potential I also think there's a world where the most followed, most highly paid, most successful, whatever you want to call it. I think the idea of a professional VR golfer being the most successful golfer in the world is almost a certainty at some point in the future and not just for golf, but I think for a lot of these different VR activities. And, you know, I think it all comes back to convenience and engagement and the fact that in VR, by definition, it's a digital experience. It allows you to do some amazing things with kind of spectating and camera motion and sort of broadcast opportunities that are just like totally impractical, if not impossible in real life. Not to mention the course design stuff that we talked about. you know, the most popular golf course in 20 years could be something that is just truly physically or realistically impossible to build in the real world. And it starts to kind of push the sport into a direction that, that it couldn't go into without that. And I think that's really, really exciting and really good for the sport and doesn't diminish from the traditional aspects of it. So, I think the sky truly is the limit. And ultimately I know I'm never going to stop playing golf in real world as long as physically I'm able to. So I know that whatever we work on here, we're going to try to do in a way that is very complimentary to the real sport. And we just see this as another side to it in the same way that I think Topgolf is. has sort of positioned golf in a more positive way. We want to do the same thing in VR, and we want to introduce the sport to people that might otherwise just not naturally come in contact with it.
[01:21:21.415] Kent Bye: Yeah. Some of the videos I saw on Twitter were people who were aged out and being able to physically play golf, but still able to kind of relive some of those experiences they have. I thought that was an aspect of giving access to the golf experience to people who had played golf, but can no longer play it. And for people who may not be able to ever play it, be able to play it and still get the social experience. So is there anything else that's left and said, you'd like to say the broader immersive community or the golf community?
[01:21:49.182] Ryan Engle: Um, I think we covered a lot and thank you so much for taking the time to meet, meet and ask these questions. I've really enjoyed this. I think the last thing I might say is, you know, even if golf doesn't seem like it's the thing for you or, or maybe you had a bad experience with it, you know, trying to play, it can be a very intimidating sport. I've been playing for 25 years and I still get nervous on the first tee, you know, please, Check out Golf Plus, hit me up if you can't afford it for whatever reason. It will be on sale in the holidays coming up. So we're going to try to make it as affordable as possible. But if you have any interest or just any thought, just give it a shot. Give us your feedback. We want to make it better. It's only going to get better if we get real feedback and we take the feedback very seriously. So I would just, yeah, ask your audience to give golf a shot. And it's especially fun if you are able to play with a friend.
[01:22:40.913] Kent Bye: Yeah, you said that in physical golf, there's no bumpers, but I do feel like you've been able to create like then bowling, you have the bumpers to be able to help you not get the gutter ball, but you're able to help nudge and guide people in a way that takes away a lot of the frustration that people may have if they're actually physically playing. So. Yeah, I really enjoyed what you've been able to create so far and look forward to seeing how you continue to grow out what you're creating here. I think there's a lot of really interesting partnerships and it's a compelling experience. Like I said, the putt-putt golf is a thing that has always been a thing that people enjoy to do and to kind of take that style of puppet golf, but actually have the probe golf and the courses and the greens, all the different tools you have to help people read the greens that make it so inaccessible or difficult. And yeah, just a lot of really interesting things that you have going on and thanks for taking the time to join me today to be able to help unpack it all. Thanks so much, Ken. I really appreciate it. So that was Ryan Engel, the founder and CEO of Golf Plus. So I have a number of front takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, the experience of Golf Plus is just really fun to play around with, especially if you've ever played golf before, or even if you haven't, the way that they're able to simulate the playing of golf, I think is Pretty cool. I'm not a golf enthusiast and I've only played one round of golf in my life. And so in some ways I'm the target demographic to be able to recreate the feeling of if you were actually somewhat decent at golf, this is what it would feel like. I talked to somebody just the other day and talking about the grip. So the controller, as you're holding it, you really only have one hand to put on it and you can play one handed if you want. but for an actual golf grip, it doesn't really match with the controller. Adding a peripheral, I think, is probably a better experience for people who've actually played golf. They suggest when you're putting just to keep your arms straight. When you're hitting it, you also are trying to do a full swing, but you can also just flick your wrist in a way. You can do that Wii Sports type of thing to hack it to play the game better. That's what I'm concerned in some ways with people who are actually professional golfers, and they go against it, and there's other people who are playing in a way that they're just tightly tuned to the game. I think ideally you want to try to create an experience that is on parity in terms of what it would actually feel like if you're playing golf. But I think the challenge of only having one track point is challenging because you're only taking the path of the club with the face of the club, and that's the entire physics engine that Ryan has custom built, is just taking those as the two main inputs. And there's an environmental context for if it's in the rough. the wind conditions, and there's other things that are actually changing the path of the ball somewhat, but that could actually be reduced down into the impact point in the path. And so maybe he's doing an abstraction there that he doesn't have to change the course or path of the ball once it's in the air. It's a type of experience where they're trying to bring more people into golf. but then you don't want to get people onto the golf course and then they have no bumpers and they're just absolutely terrible, which I think is nice that there's actually these three levels of the novice and the amateur and the pro. I had a chance to play a few holes in the pro and I was absolutely terrible, probably about as good as I am on the actual golf course, getting almost like double par in some of the different situations. There is a leveling up of this game and so I feel like there's other ways that there's like challenge holes So I think it's like more of a one chance to play a hole over and over and over again just to kind of understand some of the mechanics that was really helpful for me just to understand the spin and the draw versus fade and how you're trying to hit the ball onto the green and one or two shots and get it in and so because of that then having a ability to do it over and over and over again with that repetition helps. And there's also the whole it's almost like a two completely separate games with the Topgolf with Proput and all the different initial things that they launched with and then the Golf Plus courses that they have. It can be a little bit confusing when you're going around into the experience because they have different user interface conceits. They have onboarding for each of those different sections. And so even though I had already gone through the onboarding, I had to go through the onboarding again for the Topgolf and Proput sections of the game. And it was interesting just to hear that the thing that translates the most is the short game, so the putting and the chipping. The long game in terms of the weight distribution of the club is, you know, it's hard to replicate that in the context of a virtual reality simulation when you're not actually having the clubs in your hand. One thing that I didn't have a chance to ask Ryan is the whole realm of professional golf simulations where people end up hitting balls into this screen that then projects out how far the ball would have gone. And so, they're able to hit the screen and detect all this other additional information. But there's an actual hitting of a ball that I think is probably closer to the experience of playing golf. And so, the high-level degrees of the simulations that have a little bit more of, let's say, a mixed-reality approach to that type of simulation, when you're actually using the balls in the clubs, is probably closer for the professional golfers. And I know that they're using that. But in terms of some of the different short game and other ways of reading the putting green lies, then lots of really interesting tools that they've created in this Golf Plus experience. And you have the ability in the future to move into more augmented reality implementations in terms of what is the type of information that you'd want to know when you're on the golf course. You're starting to see some of those different things within the context of this VR experience. And so you're able to prototype some future augmented reality applications for golf. In terms of like doubling the overall number of golf players, you know, Ryan alluded to some of the different environmental impacts in the sport of golf that is probably beyond the scope of this podcast to get into, but if there is a trajectory of people playing more and more rounds of golf, then there could be other side effects of all the different environmental impacts of that. Like Ryan said, though, there is a pretty close correlation to the types of social experiences that people have while playing golf. Physical reality he prefers to use real reality But I prefer physical reality just because I think that the different types of social dynamics and experience that you can have that's very similar to even within the context of virtual simulation going back to David Chalmers and argument that he's making and reality plus But there is this social component that he's able to replicate. People who already have a lot of experience in golf, and maybe they, for whatever reason, are not able to physically go out into the course, then they're able to recreate different aspects of the golfing experience. I think that's a way in which he's able to touch a demographic of people that are already familiar with the sport and are able to see how closely it's able to replicate different aspects of the experience of playing golf. And then the last couple of thoughts are just that it's striking to me that Ryan said that it's easier to sell a $30 golf game to people who already own a VR headset rather than selling a $400 VR headset and a $30 golf game to someone who's not even in the VR ecosystem, who's maybe in the golfing realm. I'm probably just a little bit skeptical about technology in general. So it's more likely that people already have the headset that they're really targeting them. So just to hear the challenges of the marketing, very interesting given the context of Meta having Facebook and Instagram and their whole business model is mostly ad driven. And so the fact that they haven't really implemented some of those things to even serve the needs of developers and advertising their games, which is an At the end of the day, what is probably the most useful implementation of advertising is to have that be tracked. Anyway, just interesting to hear that as a feedback and just that it's more difficult for him to target the professional golfers or the amateur golfers, but this is more like a casual golfing experience anyway. And I would be really curious to see if somebody who is having a lot of experience within golf, when they go into this game, are they significantly better from people who just have no experience at all, especially when it comes to the amateur and the pro versions when it has a little bit more tightly tuned. And there is this risk of negative reinforcement where you play the virtual reality game and you go out and it makes your game worse. But like Ryan said, it's mostly in the short game and the putting and the chipping that he sees the most effect in that. For him, he says he just is experiencing some anecdotal experience of being just a little bit better at reading the greens and being able to putt. So, very fascinating game, definitely go check it out, and a lot of interesting things to track, especially as they get other superstars like Steph Curry and Tom Brady involved in helping to prompt this, as well as people who are professional golfers and then one golfer in the world, Rory McIlroy, to give more of a legitimacy as this project as well. So anyway, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you could become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voices of VR. Thanks for listening.