Welcome to a new episode of the VR Fitness Insider Podcast!
Join us as we welcome Ryan Engle of Golf+. He is a digital fitness pioneer using VR technologies to improve the world of sports and fitness.
Episode 6 – Ryan Engle
Preston Lewis: [00:00:00] Welcome to the VR Fitness Insiders podcast, for the creators who are building the future of the VR and AR sports and fitness industries that will revolutionize the way the world will play sports, work out and get fit with your hosts. Preston Lewis and Ryan DeLuca, the founders of Black Box vr, who are building the world’s first full fitness VR gym and bring decades of experience from creating some of the largest fitness technology companies in the world.
They’re bringing together the best and brightest minds to help you and your company succeed in the VR fitness revolution.
Welcome to the VR Fitness Insider podcast. Today we have an awesome guest, the creator of Golf+, one of the most fun and popular games for VR, Ryan Engel. Ryan, thanks for being here.
Ryan Engle: Thanks for having me, Preston. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Preston Lewis: So why don’t we just start with your background. What were you doing before creating Golf+ and getting into VR development?
Ryan Engle: Yeah, so I’ve been a software engineer, pretty much started coding when I was thirteen. I’ve been playing golf since I was like eleven. So, love golf, love [00:01:00] coding. Played some high school golf, did a lot of high school coding. My high school had Computer Science, which was pretty rare at the time. But yeah, fell in love with it as a teenager. Obviously wanted to build games, was kind of the dream. I got my Computer Science degree from Virginia Tech and then got into mobile development pretty early on.
Got my first job in like 2008 at a company that built games for flip phones, believe it or not. So this was like a couple months before the App Store launched for the iPhone. The iPhone had been out, but it launched without a App Store, originally.
So as soon as the App Store came out this company was kind of in perfect position to do mobile on iPhone. And the company pivoted into iPhone very quickly, and that kind of exposed me to it and it was pretty cool, because as a very junior right outta college I had as much experience developing iPhone apps as anybody else in the world.
So it was like level the playing field, and I didn’t have a wife or kids so I could stay up a lot later and get a lot more done than a lot of my peers. [00:02:00] And from there I just stayed focused on mobile for quite a while, joined a consulting company called Mutual Mobile that was just developing apps for anybody that had an idea for an app.
And at first it was all the typical, you know, bakery app, and dog walking app and apps for people that really shouldn’t have been developing apps. And then we started to get bigger and bigger clients, like, we eventually got Audi, and Google, and Pearson and Xerox. And I joined the company and there were about ten people in 2010, and by 2012 there were three hundred people at the company, and developing pretty significant apps for these bigger companies.
Ended up getting exposed to AR. I kind of found a niche as the R&D guy. Anytime new hardware came out or new SDKs came out, my job was to kind of figure out what could we do now that could be interesting to a potential client, develop a prototype, show it to the client, try to land a bigger deal, and then incorporate some cool aspect, but really the majority of the revenue was from just doing the broader project.
So, learned how to just develop really quickly. [00:03:00] And then went and joined a company called Wiki Buy, which was like a online shopping company. I actually did a lot with bodybuilding.com. We would kind of see what you were shopping for, what products you were shopping for, and it was like an automatic price comparison tool, a Chrome extension a lot like Honey. And it would recognize the product and then look across the internet to see who else had that product and who had it at a better price. And it would also automatically run coupons. So that got me exposed to kind of web development and server development. And we did have some machine learning to do the product comparison.
After a while, really wanted to get back to sort of games, or VR and AR or something in the graphics realm. I was always really interested in graphics, and that’s when I decided to start, uh, originally called Golf Scope, which was an augmented reality iPhone app that would read the contours of the green, and show you the line from your ball to the hole. After it was out for about a year, it became pretty clear that that business was just not really going [00:04:00] anywhere. So pivoted into VR and that’s how we got here.
Ryan DeLuca: Those website add-ons, the chrome extensions and things like that, that was definitely a pain in the butt for companies like Bodybuilding.com, you know, because it made price comparison just so easy.
And it’d even be, like, affiliate links kind of going through all that stuff, which, you know, obviously is awesome for consumers, but it’s like every single day a new lower price on some random corner over there. So I have to be real, I might not say some nice things about you.
Ryan Engle: Yeah, no, don’t worry. I won’t do it personally. Honestly, part of why I left was I didn’t have a passion for that space. And as you get deeper into the affiliate world, it gets a little kind of grosser.
Preston Lewis: Awesome background. You’ve had a passion for technology, and coding and product creation from kind of the get-go, huh? So you’ve been, what’d you say? Twenty years strong?
Ryan Engle: Yeah, twenty. Unfortunately, more like twenty five, getting older, but yeah. Over twenty now of writing code pretty much every night and weekend that I can get away with it. And even now, I’ve got a wife and kids, so obviously try to spend a lot of time with them. But if I’ve got [00:05:00] free time on the weekend I’m sitting in front of my computer trying to bang out a new idea. It’s just the most interesting thing. Other than playing rounds of golf, if the weather’s nice, then I’ll probably be out playing golf or pickleball, but if it’s not nice or if it’s nighttime, I’m in front of the computer trying to build a new feature.
Preston Lewis: Sounds like you created your perfect sweet spot, then.
Ryan Engle: VR’s a great space to be in, because it’s a lot like mobile was when it first came out. People haven’t really developed the conventions yet, it’s like a complete greenfield. There’s so many opportunities for new interactions that just haven’t fully been realized or discovered. And the more I spend working on it and trying new things, I just feel like I’ve never been learning faster in my life. Once you’re in the VR headset, it’s like, you can do anything. You’re not limited to this tiny little screen of, like, being able to scroll and tap things, you can do anything. So the more I play with it, the more it leads to more experimentation, which has just been a lot of fun.
Ryan DeLuca: We always used to say that with Bodybuilding.com. The [00:06:00] first early years, there wasn’t a such thing as a shopping cart. It wasn’t like, “oh, add to cart and then check out”. Like, that wasn’t even a thing, really, because that pattern had to basically be invented and adopted. And every month there’d be something new that you could see that some website could do. And then, like, the first like Ajax sites or, like, Flash, you know, or crazy stuff. Or even just video, this whole new capability would come. And obviously, after years that stuff has been found out and that there’s not really much new ways to get into that stuff. But that’s what’s so fun about mobile, you know, when it came out a few years ago, like you said, a whole new greenfield, like, opportunity. And then with VR, we’re exactly in that. Where it’s that, early days where we’re all figuring it out, there’s not as many tools. I mean, it’s obviously getting a lot better, but that’s where that opportunity is to create an amazing company.
Ryan Engle: Yeah, exactly. And there’s a lot of friction still. So I think that makes it harder to make the leap. But because of that, if you can figure out something that does resonate with the market, there is kind of a window of opportunity to have an impact and build something that hopefully lasts.
Preston Lewis: Yeah, it does feel like we’re kind of in the initial days of reducing the friction [00:07:00] to increase the adoption. I’m sure it’ll come out soon, but someone needs to, whether it’s Meta or some other platform, come out with the first blue link, right?
It feels like we still need, kind of, that first blue link to link us seamlessly across. And in this case it’d probably be a blue portal or something. A lot more epic than just a link, right?
And then the cool thing is like seeing all the magic moments people are already having with VR, you know, because I remember when I first got my iPhone, you guys were talking about the pattern creation. First, firing up mobile Safari, and of course there was no responsive web or any of that stuff. And it was just mind blowing, just even to pinch and zoom those webpages. And then now it’s like hyper optimized. Yes. That’s a really interesting thought, that we are early days and how much better the patterns are getting. That’s awesome.
Ryan Engle: I think Web is another one where like, you know, WebXR right now is just very… I think there’s some interesting people doing interesting things, but as far as I know, there aren’t really any businesses that are doing very [00:08:00] well. Generating revenue or subscriptions or whatever, through WebXR and I think it’s very similar to what we saw with mobile web initially. Where initially mobile web was like, “who’s gonna browse my desktop website on this, like, little phone?” And it is kind of fun, but it’s not very practical. Like entering data’s not that great. But pretty soon, I mean, really within a couple years, you started to see these mobile websites that looked almost exactly like they were a native app. And they’d even have the same kind of UI built in and they’re responsive and they scroll and you don’t get lost.
And now, I mean, mobile web is massive, you know? Now it’s kind of hard to justify building an app, because mobile web is cross platform, everybody has it, you can just click it from your email, do whatever you need to do, and it syncs across devices. So I do think that web is gonna be pretty massive for VR once adoption grows. But we are in those early days now where it is a lot like mobile and people are kind of like [00:09:00] testing the edges, but no one’s really quite figured it out.
Ryan DeLuca: Such a good point. I mean, having to download a full app for every new VR experience you wanna try is a lot of friction.
And you’re right, like, the current mobile or WebXR, just experiences are just not really that good. It’s a bunch of people just, kind of, trying different things and there’s no real ways to linking between experiences. But I agree, like, that’s where it’s gonna go. And it probably won’t feel like, you know, the Oculus browser, I think they still call it that. It won’t just be like tapping on there and then open things up, it’ll be more going from location to location. Uh, I think is the dream of the metaverse for all of us. Including playing golf. If I wanna go from my work and I want immediate to go to golf, there’s a portal right there. You know, I can be in Golf+.
Preston Lewis: Yeah.
Ryan Engle: We love that.
Ryan DeLuca: What got you into to golf, uh, for VR? I mean, obviously you said you were a golfer and you love golf, so it seemed like a natural thing for you. But what made you decide like, let’s go all in and create a VR golf experience, and how did that get started?
Ryan Engle: I actually did a research project after college. I stayed at my university and they had this big room called a Cave; it’s like a ten by ten room [00:10:00] and they kind of rear project onto all the walls and then top down project onto the floor, and you wear these active stereo glasses, so that you are seeing different things out of each eye. But you’re standing inside of like this Holodeck type of a thing, and you can see your hands, you can see everything, but you can also see the 3D world around you.
And I did that project and the project was for like mind safety training. So they have these big conveyor belts and coal mines, and this is at Virginia Tech, so it was really close to West Virginia. And it would sort of train you how to deal with these conveyor belt systems that can legitimately kill people, because they’re so powerful. And how to kind of deal with some of the dangers of it, so it was a pretty cool project and it introduced me to VR. I was pretty interested in VR even from that stage, like, “wow, this is transformative, but like, who’s gonna have this ten by ten room in their house? This is not practical for consumers.” And all the headsets were literally thirty pounds that had to be mounted to a ceiling and like you could barely move, and the resolution’s like 640×480 or something ridiculous. So, when the original [00:11:00] DK1 came out, I tried that and I was like, “this is really cool”. But it doesn’t do head tracking, so, like, it’s only 3 DoF. So it’s like, “eh”. And there’s not really good controller for it. So I showed it to a bunch of people; pretty much everyone gets nauseous and that’s kind of it.
When the HTC, um, VIVE came out, I went to the Microsoft store and tried that, and my first blown away moment was playing Space Pirate Trainer, which was just so fun. I’m like breaking a sweat in the Microsoft store and I just want to do it again. So I buy everything, get my computer set up, get a room dedicated to it.
Played it a bunch, and then it just kind of started collecting dust. I would show it to people when they came over, but like half the time you try to run it, it doesn’t work, and like you gotta update your drivers and update the software. And then the lighthouses, like there’s so much friction with just getting into it. At first, I was very tempted in 2016 to, like, quit my job at Wikibuy and be like, “I’m going all in in VR. This is massive. This is gonna be huge. The Vive is mind blowing.” And then after like a few months, I [00:12:00] couldn’t think of a good idea, and I realized I just stopped using it myself for the most part. So I was like, “alright, I’m gonna hold off on this.” One of the experiences that I tried right away was Golf Club VR, which I think you can still try.
And it was just a port of like the golf club, but it was in VR and I played it with the Vive. I remember being very skeptical going in. I was like, “I don’t think golf’s gonna translate that well, like, without the weight of the club, I just don’t know how it’s gonna work.”
And I played that game and, you know, not to trash that game, but it just wasn’t very good and I didn’t feel like I was playing golf. Like, I couldn’t get the ball to go where I wanted it to. It was just very frustrating. And at that moment I was like, “yeah, golf’s just not gonna work in VR.”
Like it’s just not a good match. I was pretty committed to that opinion for quite a while. And then, once Apple released ARKit, in like 2017, they released ARKit, and I was like, “okay, there’s AR and then there’s VR. Both of ’em are super interesting to me. I don’t know which one’s gonna, sort of, take hold first.” But once Apple released [00:13:00] ARKit, I was like, “okay, well Apple, Apple knows what they’re doing. They’ve got a billion phones that can now run this and their tech is amazing.” So I was like, “alright, I think AR is the right way to get into this immersive space.”
And that’s when I developed Golf Scope. So I was, I wasn’t even thinking about golf to be honest, but I was like, I really wanna work on something that I’m passionate about, because my entire career had been at startups, and the one thing that I learned pretty quickly is that startups are just a rollercoaster of like, “this is amazing, nothing is better.” And like, “this is so hard, everything sucks. Why am I working five times as much as my friends getting paid less than them?” And like “why am I torturing myself with this startup thing when I could go get a cushy job as an engineer at one of these bigger tech companies?” That’s just the nature of the beast.
So what I realized is that when I’m working on something that I’m just intrinsically excited to do, something that I would be doing [00:14:00] during my free time, because I find it interesting, it’s a lot easier to get through those dark times, because I’ll just focus on the work that I’m doing and kind of ignore all of the things that could kill your startup. And just like really focus on the work.
But when I’m working on a project that is just not that interesting to me, it’s like double whammy. Like, I don’t even want to be doing this work and I’m killing myself to do this startup. Like, what is happening? What is the point of this? So it was really important to me to pick a project that I would enjoy being a user of, even if the company didn’t work out. I’m gonna build something where I am the core user of this product. I’m not, I’m not having to ask somebody else like, “oh, it’s like a B2B thing and, like, your business does this thing that I’ve never experienced. Like, what should I build to make your life easier?” I wanted to build something that I personally would get a lot of value out of for myself, because then I knew that during the hard times, at least I could dive into it and be the user, and sort of be motivated to keep making it better.
That’s kind of what led me to golf. And then, I was playing around to golf, trying to [00:15:00] think of different ideas I could do in AR. And I was hitting shots really well, playing really well, but just missing a lot of my putts and I was pretty convinced that I just wasn’t reading the greens very well.
And reading the greens is understanding the slope and basically trying to guess how the ball’s gonna roll on the green, because it doesn’t go flat very often. It usually curves one way or the other. And I was pretty convinced, I was like hitting everything well, but just not reading the greens very well, which is really important to make putts.
And I wondered if the AR tech was good enough to actually read the 3D contours of the green, and then putting physics is kind of pretty well studied. It’s pretty nuanced ultimately, but I figured, a ball rolling on a surface is pretty well studied. If I could get the surface, I should be able to predict how the ball rolls on it. So I ended up taking a week off of work and sort of prototyping this. And went to a green, captured all the raw data, went home, built a little app, and at the end of it, I like, got a pretty rough idea of what the contours looked like. And it kind of matched what the ball did when I recorded a video of it, and that [00:16:00] was it. I was like, “alright, I think the tech’s good enough. I think the data’s good enough to do something with it. It’s gonna take a lot of refining, but like I’ve gotten far enough in this one week that I’m pretty convinced that this could work.”
And when I talked to all my golf buddies about it, like one myself as a golfer, I was like, yeah, if you could tell me every break, that would be amazing. And I talked to my buddies, my golf buddies about it, and they immediately got the idea and were like, “okay, that’s pretty cool.”
So that’s what got me into kind of the AR golf side of things. And then after a year of trying to make it work, I released it, it got featured by Apple. It was like top of the App Store when it released, because they were really trying to find cool AR tech that wasn’t super gimmicky, but actually useful. So it got top of the App Store, it got app of the day a couple of times. Apple featured it in the AR section, in the sports section. Like, they really went out of their way to feature this tiny little app that I made. And even that wasn’t enough to get people to subscribe to it and generate enough revenue.
So that’s when it became pretty clear to me that like, “okay, the AR stuff maybe isn’t ready.” And right about that same time the Quest had come [00:17:00] out, and I still was like, “VR is amazing, but there’s just so much friction. Like, I just can’t justify getting into it. I haven’t seen any breakout successes.” But then when the Quest came out, I demoed it, a buddy had one and he showed it to me early. And I tried it and I was like, “oh my God, this thing is like VR in a box, it’s four hundred dollars compared to a whole computer setup.” You just put it on and you’re in VR.
And I was like, “man, we’ve got this, like, pretty amazing putting physics tech. I wonder what it would feel like to just hit putts in VR, because the experience is pretty amazing.” So again, I took, like, a week and ported kind of the tech over into Unity to get it running in VR. I think I set myself up with like a twenty foot putt, hit the putt to, like, within a few inches of the hole. It just felt right, and I was like, “okay, I think this could work.”
Ryan DeLuca: The things that you said that kind of hit me was having the passion for what you’re doing and actually caring about it. Like, we talk about that all the time. Like, during those dark days of building a company, if you didn’t love it, if you didn’t care about the product for yourself and understand the value of it, [00:18:00] there’s just no way you would push through those hard times. And that’s the great thing about sports and fitness, you’re also helping people to change their life through the product. It’s not just, “oh, we wanna make a fun game that people are gonna pay us money for”, you know? Which is great, but it’s so cool to be able to actually provide a different type of value that improves our life, which is what’s so cool about golf, is it has that real sport feel. They actually use the real sport of golf. Now you can go in there and play something that you’re familiar with and it feels good. And I mean, how did that work out with developing it, like you said, like the physical part of it? Like putting, for example, but holding control in a certain way, like making it as realistic as possible. How difficult was that versus making something that’s more like an arcade version of golf?
Ryan Engle: Yeah, that’s a great question. I went into it with this kind of mindset of like, I want to build a tool, not a toy. That was kind of the point of the Golf Scope app was like, it’s a tool for AR, it’s not just another gimmicky toy. Like, these gimmicks come and go really fast, but I wanna build something with some lasting value, so I wanna build a tool.
And I went into the putting thing, initially, with that exact same [00:19:00] mindset of like, “I’m gonna build this amazing putt training tool, and anyone who uses it is gonna learn more about their putting stroke, and they’re gonna be able to practice their putting at home and it’s for golfers.” And like, you know, “there’s this five thousand dollar equipment out there now that can kind of analyze your stroke and do everything, and we can do all of that, but we’re gonna do it in VR and it’s gonna be way cheaper and it’s gonna be way better. And all the golfers in the world are gonna love it.”
And we did end up building kind of this like putt analyzer, and putt training tools and a bunch of kind of training stuff that was really cool and worked. We’d go to these different driving ranges and putting greens and stuff like that, and find people to show it to. And there was this group called the Major Series of Putting, which is like a legitimate putting competition. They have like a hundred thousand dollars grand prize in Vegas. They built this big stadium to do it. So it’s these, like, really serious golfers that are into putting. Went to show it to them, and everybody that we talked to is like, “hey, we’ve got this VR thing and, like, it’s gonna make you a better [00:20:00] putter. And you know, you’re gonna be amazed.” And you just get these like funny looks of like, “alright, what are you even like, is it a video game? Like, what are you talking about? I’ve never tried VR. Like, I have no idea what on Earth you’re talking about, but I don’t really buy it.”
And then we put it in, we put ’em in the headset, and we set it up so that we took the controller and just attached it to a putter using like a bike clamp, like a clamp to put a flashlight on your bike. Found some on Amazon, you know, got ’em attached, so now the controller’s on your putter, so you’re holding your putter instead of holding the controller. So the weight’s perfect. You can tap the ground and you feel it with your putter. You know, when you hit the ball, you get a haptic, so you kind of feel it in your hands and it plays the sound, so it’s like a one-to-one. And it’s pretty amazing, just like holding the putter up and moving it, and you see it in VR, like, it’s a pretty amazing experience.
So we put people in there, and we, you know, take them through this kind of little program that we had. Everybody came out with just like, “oh my God, this is amazing and this thing’s only four hundred bucks? Are you kidding me? This should be [00:21:00] thousands of dollars. This is crazy.” So we did that a bunch and got kind of convinced like, “wow, there’s a market need for this, this is really interesting. “But then when we started to dig into like, who’s gonna spend thousands of dollars on putt training?
And then the biggest issue was in order for us to convince anybody that this is good, we have to show it to them. We have to demo it to them. And that is not scalable whatsoever, right? You can’t scale doing live demos to every single person you’re selling to unless you’re selling something for a lot.
We then talked to Oculus, and this was like 2019. Went to the Oculus Connect Conference. Initially got connected with their business team, uh, that were kind of more focused on, like, what are some business use cases? And training was like a massive one. And we showed them the demo and everything, and they got super excited.
And they pretty much were like, “look, this is really interesting; we’d love to support this, but right now the market’s like ninety five percent games. That’s just who’s buying it. Gamers are buying it. They wanna play games. It’s a cheaper device, the whole thing is just [00:22:00] built for games. If you can just turn this into a game, we’ll approve it for the store.”
And my initial thought is like, “okay, great, we’ll make a game and maybe we’ll make it free or like five bucks. We’ll make it super cheap and we’ll just use it as a funnel to get people to buy this training aid, because that’s where it’s really at.” That kind of got us approved. We started building the game and then very quickly we’re like, “you know what? Screw this training thing. The game is where it’s at. This is actually pretty fun and people are enjoying it and a lot of non-golfers are playing it and having fun.” And then we had a multiplayer and that was like, okay, this is like really fun. And kind of just put the training stuff on the back burner. Recognizing that, that is gonna require people to probably already have a headset, already have a relationship with VR, before they’re gonna be able to make that leap to understand that training is a viable option in VR. So training is still something I’m pretty serious about figuring out long term, but I think we’re still pretty early in kind of the VR days where it’s pretty clear that gaming is the use case that people are doing the most [00:23:00] of. And really right now, it’s the only use case that I think is able to generate any revenue other than fitness. You could kind of argue is, like, sort of somewhere in between.
Ryan DeLuca: How did the brand partnerships come together with, uh, like PGA and Topgolf? I remember when I first heard about your game, seeing actual real sports brands being a part of this has made it have this cache of just, like, a legit thing versus, like, some random indie golf game that there’s been so many of them out there. But how did that come about and what made you decide to do that?
Ryan Engle: So we’re based in Austin and have a bunch of network overlap with folks at Topgolf. I went to Topgolf when I first came out in Austin in, like, I think it was like 2013 or so. And I remember thinking like, “okay, well, I’m in cuz I like getting golf balls and I like, you know, having drinks and hanging out and whatever. But I don’t know why any of my friends would come because they don’t play golf. I don’t understand how this business is gonna work.”
And every time I brought friends they had a blast, and I had a blast. And I was like, “okay, that’s really interesting, I wouldn’t have predicted that, but it’s working great.” So Topgolf, you [00:24:00] know, just has always had this amazing brand, and has just been so good at attracting non-golfers to the sport.
We were kind of chatting with them, and once we had this putting demo working, went out to visit Topgolf, showed them the demo. Like, “hey, are you guys thinking about VR in any way? Here’s our demo, we think it could be great. Frankly, we’re not exactly sure what we’re gonna do with it yet, but we just wanted to show it to you to see if this is something that you might have any interest in — potential partnership, investment, whatever.”
They tried it and they were like,” this is actually really cool, but, you know, we’re so focused on mobile and our venues and all this other stuff that’s growing really well, that like VR just isn’t even on our radar whatsoever. So let’s stay in touch, but there’s nothing specific to do right now.”
And then we had the meeting with Oculus and got verbal approval for the store. So then we went back to Topgolf and we’re like, “hey, we’re gonna build this putting game, we think it would be a lot better if we were able to throw the Topgolf brand on there. Let’s talk about what [00:25:00] that could look like.”
And once we got that approval and they kind of recognized that this would allow them to be one of the first brands to really be in VR, and have an experience in there, even though at the time it didn’t really have anything to do with Topgolf per se. That was enticing, so we kind of had that conversation and we were able to form a partnership around that. And they took a kind of big leap on us. We didn’t really have any real traction of any sort. That was it. So they took a bet on us and we partnered, and we did it for the exact reason that you’re saying, Ryan, we wanted that legitimacy.
We figured the best way for us to get some traction early is to have a partner where we can put their brand on there and there’s automatic brand recognition, because no one has heard of our brand. So we did that and we launched Pro Putt by Topgolf. That started to get some traction. We added the full Topgolf venue to the game. We rebranded it as Topgolf with Pro Putt for the holiday of 2020. And after we had added the full swing, you know, Topgolf venue and we had the putting from Pro Putt, the number one request from our players was “can you not just combine these and let me play [00:26:00] nine holes of golf?”
At the time I remember thinking like, “man, that sounds great to me, but I don’t know how many people actually wanna play golf versus putting mini golf and Topgolf. Like, those are much more casual.” I’ve run into a lot of these kind of crossroads of like, “alright, do we go this way or do we go that way?” And interestingly, even if both options are pretty good, those are by far the most stressful periods of my startup journey. Is when you have two good options or two bad options, but you have to pick one. And you can’t do both. Anyone who tries to do both, that’s like guaranteed failure in my opinion, especially when you’re a young startup. So you, kind of, have to pick one and it’s just really stressful because either one could fail, either one could work, you just don’t really know.
And in those moments, what has made it a lot easier for me to get better at making those decisions is having started the business knowing that I am the core user of this. I am the power user. I’ve been playing golf my whole life, I like video games, I like technology.[00:27:00] I just go with which of these experiences am I gonna enjoy the most? And then I’ve crafted a team that also love golf and also love technology. So, we’re able to say, like, “which of these do we think would be the, the best?” And then we’re, like, “okay great, we’re gonna go in that direction.” That way, there’s sort of no regret, because we have a system for making these decisions. And we also know worst case, we’re gonna have fun playing it. That’s gotta be worth something.
So decided to go in this golf direction and then develop the prototype of playing a hole of golf. Showed it to someone at the PGA of America, and they thought it was pretty cool. We had some traction, we had some pretty good reviews on the store and we were able to close the deal with the PGA of America. And that’s when we launched Golf+ and rebranded the whole experience to Golf+, which was another pretty big bet on our part. Everyone we talked to at Oculus was like, “you guys have already rebranded once, we recommended you didn’t do that the first [00:28:00] time, we’re definitely recommending you don’t do this the second time; you’re sort of taking Topgolf out of the name and you’re putting Golf+ up there, no one’s heard of Golf+. You’re gonna confuse all your users, da da, da.” We’re like, “yeah, that’s fine, but we’re gonna do it anyway. We really think it’s important that we start building our brand.”
And the way that we’ve looked at a lot of decisions, even now is, in a year or two the majority of our players are gonna be new. They’re not gonna know that it was called Pro Putt, or Topgolf or whatever else it was. All they’re gonna know is what it’s like when they first got it. So we just keep trying to make decisions with that understanding that the majority of our players, if we’re successful, are gonna be new and they won’t know what decisions we’ve made in the past. If we think we should change something, because it’ll be better in the future, we should change it now, because we’re never gonna have fewer players than we do now. So that’s kind of been another one of our mindsets going into it.
But that’s how we got the first two partners. And once we got those two partners, and launched Golf+, and started to gain some traction and ended up like in the [00:29:00] top selling charts, every future conversation just got a lot easier.
Ryan DeLuca: We go through the same thing. It’s like we know that at Black Box, like almost all of our customers or members over time are in the future. And so, we want to make sure we take care of the ones we have now, but we’re really thinking like we have to make those type of decisions, now is the time to do it and to build that.
And I think the other thing you said that resonated was, when you first start out as creating a business, all the advice is like, “don’t create it for you, do the focus groups and, you know, make sure you create it for some, for the actual customer that’s gonna be using it.” You are building it for yourself, but you almost get this advice and all these business books not to do that. You know? But I actually think you’re totally right. Like, if you’re building a product for what you want, for the right reasons of like, this is something that I want, there’s probably a lot of other people out there like you.
And it’ll make it so you’d be able to make better product decisions. You know, obviously that’s not always the case. If you were in some big bureaucracy, you know, big business, most likely that’s not the case. But when it comes to things like this, like, it’s gotta be passion based and, and that just comes from that subjective feeling of this is what we want.
Ryan Engle: Yeah, I think we had a bit extra [00:30:00] validation, because there are a lot of VR experiences out there that our brand knew have never existed before. These new games that, that could only be done in VR, or are just sort of out of the box, like very creative games. And a lot of ’em have done really well.
But I think the challenge that many of them have is they’re just really hard to market, because it’s so hard to understand what it’s gonna feel like when you’re doing it in VR. But for us, we’ve really leaned into the fact that like, yeah, we’re golf. Like, that’s why the name’s Golf+. This is golf and thirty million people in America play golf. So we know that a lot of people do love golf, so if we can just, kind of, convince them that, like, you know, playing golf in VR feels similar to playing golf in real life, then we’re gonna go hard on that kind of marketing direction. I think that also created a bit of confidence in let’s build golf. You know, let’s build it like golf feels.
Preston Lewis: That’s interesting. You, kind of, are building for yourself, you’re this super user. The good thing about that is you can, kind of, shortcut a lot of [00:31:00] these focus groups and studies you might have to run that, to your point, a lot of large bureaucratic companies are mandated to do. And I think that’s where the advantage is with startups, is that if you can strike that balance between the passion that makes you obviously work harder, as well as the rapid iteration and being able to trust your gut and not having to over validate, so to speak, you can get to market faster and that’s when you can actually disrupt things.
The second thing you said that was interesting was the One for One of golf. That’s something at Black Box VR that’s been difficult for us is that we have, it’s not like we can say, “oh yeah, you know, that like futuristic tower defense game people play every Sunday?” It’s like, “what? What are you talking about?” Right? So that is interesting to be able to use something like golf as a little bit more of a bridge to understanding the technology. You know? So that’s definitely an advantage, I would see that as an advantage of what you guys are doing is having that in real life [00:32:00] analog.
Ryan Engle: Yeah, I think if you look at a lot of the top experiences in VR, a lot of them do have that analog. I mean the sports ones are pretty obvious, but there’s boxing, basketball, the new football experience and golf have all done pretty well. Ping pong, or table tennis, another great example. They all translate well. As soon as you say “yeah, let’s play table tennis in VR”, in my mind I can picture exactly what that is like. And then when I play it, it’s like, “wow, it’s actually even better than I expected.” Golf I think is pretty similar.
The other ones that have done well, like shooter games, you can kind of imagine what it would be like to be a first person shooter. And then Beat Saber’s the one example that is just like a brand new experience. And I feel like it’s done incredibly well, because it’s one of the few VR experiences that, it’s got no buttons, right? There are no real controls other than hitting this stuff. And with the music, and the visual effects and everything, it films really, really well. You can watch somebody playing Beat Saber on like a screen and [00:33:00] immediately see like, “this actually looks awesome and I want to try it, and I immediately know how to play it.”
I have a six year old and I haven’t had him use VR much. He’s got plenty of distractions anyway. But I did have him try Beat Saber and immediately he just gets it and it’s like you’re smashing the blocks. So, I feel like that is the one example that has just done incredibly well that breaks the mold.
But most of the other top experiences do have an IRL component, because it’s just so much easier to market. Especially to people who may not have even tried VR yet. And even to people who have tried VR; I’ll see a trailer for a game and then buy the game and try it, and it’s like, “whoa, this was actually nothing like what I had pictured in my head. It’s totally, totally different.” So I think for anyone building stuff in the VR space, it’s just so critical to think about how can you market this to people that haven’t necessarily tried VR or just have no idea what it’s like to be in your experience. Even if that means [00:34:00] just focusing on one feature of the broader experience, so that you can get them just excited about, “oh okay, I get what it’s gonna be like to do this one game mechanic, this one action”, whatever it is. I think that’s just absolutely critical, because otherwise somebody’s just taking a pure gamble because they really have no idea what it’s gonna be like to get in the experience.
Preston Lewis: That kind of makes me think of the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” thing. And what I think will benefit everyone in the VR industry will be that momentum build of the marketing. Right? It’s, kind of, like before Uber, now you hear in the VC world, like “oh, it’s like the Uber for shipping” or it’s the “such and such for this”. You know, those kind of comparisons.
And now if you look at Supernatural, let’s just say, you can, kind of, say “it’s Beat Saber with fitness”, a little bit? Right? And so that’s, I think, the nice thing for all of us, is that as the ecosystem grows, you’re right, that education, that kind of initial marketing cost, so to speak, will at [00:35:00] least be a little bit easier with the story storytelling.
And that’s, again, one of the things that we’ve really had to do with Black Box, is because it’s such a new thing. But the good thing is now there’s all these new apps that are coming out where we can start to, kind of, compare and make that narrative a little bit more digestible for the average user.
Ryan Engle: How would you describe it to someone that’s new to VR or someone that you meet on the subway type of a thing? Is there kind of a one minute, like, this is what it is?
Ryan DeLuca: That’s a great question. Basically we always say it’s resistance training, high intensity interval training, almost like CrossFit, but inside an eSport game.
And listening to what you’re saying, I think it’s a lot of good lessons for us, too, because if anything we’ve tried to, like, Future Cast even for farther than maybe we should have. Like, it probably would’ve been easier.
We even said at the very beginning, we didn’t wanna create just a cardio experience where the first idea you have for creating a VR or fitness game is, like, “oh, your headset on your trainer’s standing right there telling me what to do.” And we’re like, “well, that’s only a little bit better than having an actual trainer or watching a [00:36:00] it on the screen.” We wanted to go the whole next level of let’s use all these, like, advanced game mechanics, because the problem that we’re really trying to solve more than anything is adherence. Like, getting people to stick to their fitness program. Because we’d always say at, like, BodyBuilding.com, “we lost most of our customers to the couch.” Not to another competitor or something else. And how do we get people to adhere? And video games are just so good at that, and you don’t even know why that you have that itch, that compulsion to keep coming back. So it’s an interesting thing.
Like, part of it is we have to make sure you get the right amount of exercise, and the right type of exercise. So it’s effective and it actually gives you results. But we also, more importantly, want it to be something where you just wanted to continue to come back, and you’re using all those game mechanics to do that. So if anything, we’ve taken it to a level that makes it more confusing. Somebody’s gotta tell you like, “hey, no, you gotta come try this thing, let me bring you in.” Because there’s a lot of friction. Even more for us, having physical locations, where people have to come in, they can’t just try it at home.
Ryan Engle: Yeah. I feel like fitness is such a tough one, because it’s such a competitive space. But I’m personally so bullish on VR fitness as a category, [00:37:00] because when I was younger I liked going to the gym and I liked setting new PR’s, and I liked pushing myself. And as I get older, I don’t like going to the gym as much. I like playing sports, pickleball and stuff. Like, I like burning calories that way. I go to the gym, because I know I should and I have to, and I know it’ll make me feel better. Not because I want to go.
I feel like good marketing for someone like me, all I really care about is the convenience and the time factor. Like this idea of seven minute abs type of a thing. It’s like, “oh, that’s interesting, I’ve got seven minutes every day. And I can do it from home? Like, fantastic. Alright, who doesn’t want abs for seven minutes?” For me, when I’m looking at that stuff, I am kind of just looking at how simple is it? What’s the promise? And what’s the time commitment? Since, with the wife and kids and business and stuff, time is such a big factor now.
Preston Lewis: That’s a great point. I mean, that’s been the fun thing about this journey is like learning what those things are that resonate with people. Right? So as you mentioned before, we have of course our kind of gut instincts as far as what we would want in the experience. [00:38:00] And a lot of the things you just mentioned come up and then people resonate with. Fitness is such a difficult kind of nut to crack. You know, people are just desperate for a solution, right?
Whether it’s the time stuff that you mentioned, like solving the efficiency and the time stuff. Or it’s just straight up intimidation going into the gym, right? And so we’ve found people resonating with the privacy of the booths, people resonating with the data that comes through, because we’re tracking like 50,000 data points of workout. We just had, what was it? A 90 day transformation, where we had two guys go through, and one of the guys his biggest value he got from it was the time efficiency, because they only did three workouts, every workout’s only thirty minutes. Thirty minute kind of competitive battle. So ninety minutes a week for ninety days, and he lost like thirty pounds, put on like almost ten pounds of lean mass, like insane stuff.
So that is the kind of fun aspect of it, is to kind of see, as you mentioned before, having these gut instincts and seeing ’em actually prove out with people. But for us right now, it is, it’s a couple different buckets, right? [00:39:00] Whether it’s efficiency, or data or…but yeah, very interesting.
Ryan DeLuca: And it is interesting, too, like you’re saying is everybody knows they should work out. Like the story you just said about, you know you should do it, you don’t wanna do it. I mean, that’s basically what everybody says, ” and we’re busy and I used to be in better shape, but it’s like I haven’t had as much time and I’m off the plan.”
It’s an interesting thing, because it’s like ninety seven percent of people know how important exercise is and think they need to do it. Whereas, literally, something like three or four percent of people actually do it. The recommended amount of time. Like, they actually track it with activity trackers versus just asking them.
And so it’s this weird thing, but everybody wants to do it. Almost nobody’s doing it, and we just haven’t solved that yet as a society, like how to do that. That’s where we really think that the game principles come in that can make that difference.
Ryan Engle: Yeah, we’re kind of running into something similar with Golf+, right?
Because about half of our players either don’t play golf, or they only play like once or twice a year, and then the other half play pretty regularly. Since most of the company now are golfers, and like, I’ve been playing golf my whole life, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a beginner. And to [00:40:00] not know all the details or not know why you should practice putting, or not even know how to hit the ball ,or what a stroke is like and what these golf terms are. And because most of the team has played the game a ton, and they love golf and everything, it’s really easy for us to over-index on building things that the power users would love to use, but are completely foreign to new people.
It was really important for us to kind of establish our mission as a company. To help us prioritize this stuff. And the mission for us is we want to grow the game of golf by making it more accessible. That’s as simple as it gets.
A lot of golf companies have that mission, but we firmly believe that with this technology we can actually achieve it, because we can make golf ten times cheaper, ten times faster, ten times easier to get started just in terms of like skill. And with that in mind, it’s so important for us to focus on that fifty percent of people that are pretty much brand new to the sport, because we have to get them… if our goal is to grow [00:41:00] golf, then it doesn’t really count if we’re just taking golfers and getting them to play more golf. To grow golf, we want to grow the number of people that are playing golf. So using that mission, we really look at our features and we say, “is this gonna affect power users or is this gonna affect new users?”
And we’ve been trying to do a really good job of prioritizing the things that we think are gonna impact new users, because our natural tendency is to build the features that we would use the most, but we’re the hardcore power users. That’s been another great forcing function for us, is to just really understand who is this feature for and how is someone even gonna know that this feature exists? Because as the app grows, you have so many new features and if someone can’t discover it, then they’re never going to use it, no matter how great it is.
So we’ve been thinking more about how do we message this stuff? How do we let people know about all the features that are available? How do we make customer support better and create a community, so that if you have a question you don’t just have to ask us, but you can ask the community.[00:42:00]
Preston Lewis: Huge. That’s huge.
Ryan DeLuca: I think on that note, what type of feedback do you get from people. Cause like you said, it’s easy, we’re all on that kind of same thing, we’re so close to it that it’s hard to understand it from a new player perspective. But what type of feedback have you gotten from players that surprised you? And like what type of things do they like the most about the game? Because obviously it’s the actual transferability of the skills from VR golf to real golf. And then there’s the competitive aspect, like multiplayer or leaderboard or just mastery aspect.
Overall, what’s been the type of feedback you get that people like the most and what’s surprised you?
Ryan Engle: I think what’s been really surprising and encouraging to us is the number of people that reach out and are like, “honestly I had no interest in golf, but my buddy convinced me to buy this game. I’ve been playing it every day. I just bought my first set of clubs and I’m going to the driving range and I’m getting lessons and I’m gonna go play my first round of golf.” Along with messages from people who are like, “I used to play golf a ton, but I kind of stop playing for whatever reason. And now that I’m playing this, it reminded me how fun golf is, so I’m going to play again.” And [00:43:00] those are the messages that mean the most to me, because the way that we look at it is there’s the golf pie and we’re not trying to take people from playing on course golf to play VR golf, and like replace on course golf with VR golf.
The way we look at it, everything grows the pie. The more you watch golf, the more you play golf, the more you play VR golf, the more you play golf. The more you’re thinking about golf, the more you’re gonna play golf. And I think fitness is probably exactly the same thing. It’s not a question of “if I do cardio, I’m not gonna do weights. Or if I do weights, then I’m not gonna do cardio. I wanna be well-rounded, so the more I do cardio, the more I wanna do weights, the more I want to eat right.” And that’s what is necessary.
So we look at golf the same way, where it’s like our ultimate goal is to get more people to play golf in real life.
Because that’s the pinnacle. What we have in VR I think is great. I play a lot more VR golf than real golf, but there’s no substitute for being out there on the course in real life. Hitting a real golf ball with friends with nice weather. [00:44:00] That is the pinnacle of it. And every time I go out and play a round, I’m reminded of how amazing that experience is. And for me, Golf+ is just friendly reminders between my rounds that, yes, golf is great. Next time you have a six hour block that you can take, go play golf because it is great. So I think all the messages surrounding that are great.
And then, we do get some funny feedback too. Like, it’s just funny to see all the different people that are coming into VR and we really try to work on our onboarding experience to make it as seamless as possible. But you know, it’s definitely not perfect yet. You always try to make it so simple, because every step there’s gonna be a little bit of drop off, because somebody doesn’t know how to do something. And one of our steps, we wanted to show the controller pretty early on and be like, “here are all the buttons on the controller and here’s what they do. Okay, great, once you’re ready, click the continue button to move forward. And on the screen in front of you, there’s this big green Continue button. It’s the only button on the screen.” And we got an email from [00:45:00] someone who’s like, “I’m on the Controller step, and it’s telling me to hit the continue button, and I’m looking on my controller and there’s no continue button anywhere. I see the grip button, I see the trigger button, I see the A button, the B button. But there’s no continue button on this controller.” And it’s like, “it says Continue. It’s on the screen, it’s right in front of you.” And stuff like that just makes you laugh, because it’s like, ” alright, next version we’re just gonna have arrows that are completely around you pointing at the Continue button to say this is what it is.”
But I think comments like that actually just kind of reminds you of how early we are in this adventure, where the fact that the buttons on your controller are called buttons and the buttons on a screen are called buttons, creates confusion for some people, because they’re just so unfamiliar with this new terrain.
Comments like that remind us that we can’t make this too simple. If we think it’s simple now we should go back to the drawing board and recognize that for some people this is still the most confusing thing in the world.
Preston Lewis: Early on, in our onboarding, we had to even put little [00:46:00] “tap me” buttons around a room, because we would have someone put the earphone up and we’d say, “hey, go ahead and step forward and hit that Confirmation button.” And they would just, like, kind of, reach out for it. You know? And we’re like, “no, no, go ahead and take a physical step forward.” And so it is interesting, it’s such, it’s such early days. I mean, in a year or two or even a couple months, maybe that’s not gonna be a thing. But it is crazy to think of the patterns that are needed this early. Yeah. Good point.
Alright, Ryan. Awesome. That was so great to hear those answers. Thanks so much. We got a bunch of other great questions to ask you that I know our audience would love to hear. So we’ll meet again for a part two and ask you those other questions.
Ryan Engle: Great. Thanks Preston.
Ryan DeLuca: I’m going golfing.
Preston Lewis: Thanks for listening to the VR Fitness Insider podcast. Do you know of anyone that should be on our show or have feedback? Don’t forget to email us at podcast vr fitness insider.com and follow us at VR Fitness Insider on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. You can also join our Discord channel. Until next time, keep creating and dreaming up the next big thing that will [00:47:00] revolutionize the world of fitness.