I don’t often play video games at work.
As tempting as it may seem, I have long believed that the boundary between “paid employment” and “seeking unemployment” is somewhere between the first and third games of PGA Tour 2K23 for example on a Tuesday afternoon. Nobody – no matter how passionate – wants to be picked up while their boss is frantically trying to reach them.
But some rules, as the saying goes, were meant to be broken. And one recent morning at the offices of GOLF.com, that is precisely what happened.
I was there, in the middle of an early morning virtual round on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, when I heard a voice. It was Alan Bastable, editor of GOLF (and my boss), standing a few feet in front of me.
“Oh! Hey!” I stammered, stepping back slowly.
“What is happening here?” Alan asked.
What was happening was perfectly clear. Alan had caught me in the act, Oculus headset on, happily wading through a VR golf course when I should have been working. A few meters to my right, the team responsible for making the video game, GOLF+, looked happily. Or at least they rang joyful. I was immersed in the virtual world around me, unable to see the room I was in or the people who shared the space with me.
I held in my hands a device that looked like a golf club, the grip giving way to a steel shaft, which attached in the middle to a device that looked like a Nintendo Wii controller. With the headset over my eyes, I was absorbed – all 360 degrees – into the virtual world around me, a landscape that could have been pulled straight from the copy of 2K22 in my living room. It was time to play my first round of VR golf… in front of my boss.
Within the golf industry, GOLF+ enjoys a healthy dose of newfound celebrity. The original idea of Ryan Engel, an Austin-based tech prodigy and obsessive golfer, the app has something of a first-mover advantage in the topsy-turvy world of virtual reality. It’s one of the only golf-focused apps currently available to users, and it’s by far best-funded, having raised millions from a stellar list of investors that includes Rory McIlroy, Tom Brady and Ben Crenshaw. In the months since that announcement, GOLF+ has exploded into the golf space, announcing partnerships with TaylorMade, Pinehurst Resort and Pebble Beach. On Thursday morning, the PGA Tour announced that it also had in partnership with GOLF+, bringing the full suite of TPC courses to the app in a move that will make GOLF+ the “Official Virtual Reality Golf Game” of the Tour. (GOLF.com and GOLF+ have no commercial affiliation.)
Inside the app, it’s easy to understand the hype. Golfers can simulate the experience of playing real golf, completing laps from tee to green in minutes, minus the walking. To hit a driver, iron, or chip shot, users grasp the golf club attachment and perform a swinging motion as they normally would. Although the weighting is different (the controller is considerably lighter than an average club), the ball feels just like in real golf (my naughty push-slice makes no difference between virtual reality and real life). The putt feature – which simulator golf has never quite cracked – is particularly telling; in practice mode, players receive detailed analyzes of their stroke, trends and potential fixes.
Courses are fully immersive, with true-to-form routings and bunkers – the hard work of what Engle calls an “elite team” of two GOLF+ coders. It only takes about two weeks for a course to go from laser mapping to prepping for gaming; the relative speed of this process has allowed GOLF+ to add a catalog of new courses in just the past two months, with more on the way.
But in reality, the picture is not so rosy. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and godfather of virtual reality, saw its stock value plunge in 2022 after declare disastrous income tied to its $10 billion investment in virtual reality. Competition within the tech industry, once thought to be a key driver of cost reduction, has slowed in some cases, and to the point of death all together in the others.
Then there are the technical issues that the platform still faces. The Oculus headset, required for use, is still quite expensive ($399) and uncomfortable when worn for long periods. The operating software is prone to glitches and other misfires. And while the VR visuals are pretty impressive overall, they’re still a far cry from anyone’s definition of “realistic.”
When I posed this dilemma to Engle, he offered a counter-argument. Of all the tech products, he said, the Oculus growth chart most closely resembles that of the iPhone. Significant advances in hardware and software have proven costly, but they’re not far off, he said. Soon, he predicted, the barrier to entry won’t feel as great for average video game consumers, and once consumer demand explodes, the resulting investment will improve the product just as much. rapidly.
Then the possibilities of GOLF+ will be truly limitless: better helmets, better graphics, more realistic swing mechanics. A future breakthrough that Engle was particularly excited about is the platform’s ability to turn architectural drawings into honest digital designs, bringing to life “ghost courtyards” – courtyards that were designed but never built.
If that sounds a little far-fetched, that’s because it is. This is, after all, the central thesis of the tech industry: it always seems impossible…until someone else does it.
Just when Engle said that, we were both interrupted. To our right, my boss Alan was trying out the helmet for the first time. We watched Alan hit his first putts, marveling at the new world of golf he had found himself in.
“Wow,” Alan said, his jaw slightly open. “This is savage.“
Ryan turned to me and smiled. He had made his point.