Innovation

PGA Tour taps Intel technology to drive golf into virtual reality

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 15: during the Pro-Am at the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club on February 15, 2017 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 15: during the Pro-Am at the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club on February 15, 2017 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)  (2017 Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

The PGA Tour is teeing up virtual reality experiences to drive fans and tech savvy, potential fans, greenside at PGA Tournaments.

The Tour wants to keep pace with sports leagues such as the NBA, which offers weekly VR broadcasts. But PGA officials say VR experiences need to be special, not just an immersive version of the same old broadcast.

“The trick is creating an experience that people want to have the headset on for more than five minutes,” Scott Gutterman, PGA Tour VP, digital operations, told Fox News. “We’d like for people to interact with the stream, if there are stats they want, to choose themselves, slide the leaderboard in and out (of their view).”

The PGA Tour and Intel Sports Group’s Voke virtual reality unit tested the technology on the famous 10th hole at storied Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles ahead of the Genesis Open that teed off Thursday.

The Intel unit has produced VR for the NFL and last year’s NCAA Final 4 basketball games. It makes custom experiences for clients across VR platforms.

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“We think golf is one of the hidden treasures to produce and create experiences in virtual reality,” said David Aufhauser, managing director, strategy and product, Intel Sports Group. “You can create experiences fans just can’t get, even if they’re there. You can bring in stats and data and other visual components that can complement the video part of it.”

While a few pro golf tournaments have been produced in VR, the game has presented technological hurdles that make it more difficult to produce in virtual reality than sports such as basketball. Golf balls are smaller and tracking their flight can be trickier than the larger brown basketballs or footballs, plus there is a lot more space to be covered on a golf course than a fixed playing area. Resolution can be an issue when subjects are farther away from cameras, especially on the more popular but less powerful mobile-powered headsets.

Going Green

Gutterman pointed to Voke’s three large pods of cameras triangulating the putting surface, capturing a 180 degree panorama, and says their size and lack of mobility will keep VR a “largely tee or green experience” in the early going, although the technology “will eventually have its own produced broadcast.”

The elevated camera pods feature six pairs of cameras that stream video, which is stitched together by producers. And the lenses can be changed depending on the sport or to capture different shots.

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Gutterman notes: “We really like Voke’s stereoscopic cameras; they provide a different level of enhancement we want to capture.”

Voke’s founder Sankar Jayaram told Fox News: “The way we designed our system, we can actually zoom in. One challenge is in VR the cameras are far from the action. We can use different lenses and take you closer to the action—it’s one of the unique features we have, so you can get depth.”

View to a Thrill

A demo provided for Fox News delivered depth of field and a crisp view arguably better than some spectators had standing a few yards away from the action. The VR stream showed undulations on the putting surface and brought into view the severe slope the pros fear when their balls roll off this green’s backside. Even in HD broadcasts the greens tend to flatten out.

The Voke experience lets the user switch views for different camera angles. It was powered on a Samsung Gear headset and Galaxy G7 phone and was just as sharp as commercial broadcast VR streams.

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Newly installed PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan liked what he saw. After walking off the 10th green in the Pro-Am round alongside Jordan Spieth, Monahan looked into the headset at his own demo and said simply, “Wow! That’s amazing.”

Despite that apparent endorsement from the boss, Gutterman says it’s unclear whether the PLAYERS Championship will be live streamed in VR in May. He said the VR test was positive and encouraging and no further testing would be required.

Intel Sports Group’s Aufhauser says there’s growing demand, “Fans want to experience new ways to connect with sports and players that they love in wholly immersive experience. We see a lot of growth.”

Adam Scott, who won the PGA’s L.A. event in 2005, admits he has limited VR experience, but recognizes its potential. “I think that’s huge for the fans. Another way to interact with us, or the game in any way, is a good thing. Certainly we’ve got to move with the times. I haven’t really used it for my benefit, but maybe in the future.”