Is AR Ready to Take the Next Step? The PGA TOUR Says Yes
For Devon Fox, director of digital platform innovation at the PGA TOUR, and the rest of the digital team, augmented reality has been a multi-year journey. Much of it began in earnest in 2017 before the launch of the PGA TOUR AR app that showcased 3D hole models and near real-time ShotLink data to fans at home in tabletop augmented reality. It allowed users to see unique visualizations of holes as well as the trajectory of player shots and by moving the device, users could virtually view around the playing surface to see the shot trails from different angles.
This year the TOUR worked with Quintar and their new Q.reality Platform to bring a new level of performance to the app, including in-venue features for fans attending tournaments like distance to the pin, ball and player indicator cards, and more.
The teams at Quintar and the TOUR have a long-standing relationship that extends back to “previous lives” including efforts around live virtual reality. Fox says those earlier efforts laid a foundation of trust that she believes has been important when tackling the hard technical problems around AR for live sports.
“The folks at Quintar are super smart and have great ideas that are always on the leading edge technology,” says Fox. “It was kind of a no brainer for us to jump right in with them and do some testing.”
This past season, the AR experience was available on a par-3 hole at each of three tournaments during the FedExCup Playoffs: Liberty National Golf Club for THE NORTHERN TRUST, Caves Valley Golf Course at the BMW Championship, and at East Lake Golf Club for the season-ending TOUR Championship.
Fox says the process begins with the user registering their device and as players come through the hole, fans hold up their device to see live graphical shot trails—fans can even compare previous shots.
“The shot trails are close to being rendered in real time and to make things a little more fun we have a game where the user can predict player actions,” she adds. “It’s a great mix of two different things that are happening in digital right now and we’re really happy with how it turned out.”
Currently the app is standalone, but Fox says the PGA TOUR’s goal is to eventually fold this new AR app experience into the flagship PGA TOUR app so that it is more accessible for fans.
One of the big challenges the team was working to solve is making the AR experience more accurate. ShotLink data and it’s coordinate system, which is powered by CDW, is extremely accurate but the GPS within smartphones can still be off by quite a distance.
“We realized that while our data is very accurate, the devices we carry in our pockets are not always. Accuracy issues for fans was a problem in our early experiments—sometimes it would be spot-on while other times you could be at the course and the pin is 10 feet to your left, but the phone is showing that it is five feet to the right,” says Fox.
Fox says several solutions were considered to work around phone GPS accuracy challenges, including signage with QR codes on the course or beacons placed around the holes. But Quintar came to the table with a solution that Fox says has really worked out well from a technology perspective. And for a sport like golf, with 150+ players competing simultaneously on a field of play covering hundreds of acres, AR can solve a big problem for fans—giving them contextual information on the course about what is going on in front of them and elsewhere on the course.
“In other sports that have smaller, fixed size playing fields, like a basketball or baseball, the fan can always see the action,” she says. “But with golf, each player is playing their own separate game and as a fan, it can be really difficult to visualize the context in which a single shot is made or how it compares to other shots made across different rounds or tournaments. But with AR it is possible for us to see things in context and give the fans a better way to get a handle on what’s really happening.”
One of the other challenges that sports leagues face with AR is creating a behavior among fans where they arrive at an event and intuitively turn on their phones to begin diving into an AR experience.
“Fans already instinctively check the leaderboard, players stats and tee times and I think that embedding AR into activities they are used to doing is the gateway for us to teach our fans about how to use AR experiences,” says Fox.
The team’s next step to extend the AR experience is to integrate what they’re doing with the in-venue AR experience and an at-home stereoscopic video feature meant to invite fans to participate in the action in a whole new way. The stereoscopic video feature will allow fans to display what’s happening live on a featured hole right onto a coffee table.
And looking even further into the future, Fox believes there might be an opportunity to link the AR experience to TOURCast. “TOURCast [browser experience] is like a 2D view of the 3D hole models where fans can spin them in any direction to look at the shots.” With the popularity of TOURCast, the desire to encourage fans to engage with AR, and interest from sponsors in new ways to reach fans, it seems like a natural step forward to integrate the two.
“We’re just scratching the surface of what is possible with AR in sports. Sometime in the future, either with your phone or with a set of AR glasses, we hope to invite fans into immersive and beautiful visualizations of golf,” she adds. “And our product team has really smart people working on that. Everything starts with making a commitment to understanding the fan before building the product roadmap, so the team can drive innovation. Innovation doesn’t just happen; you have to experiment and be willing to take risks and fail.”