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May 2, 2018

Your Guide to Starting a Career in Virtual Reality

We live in a wondrous time for technology. Several innovations are poised to change the world as we know it forever, including big data and analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things and, of course, virtual reality.

In fact, many believe virtual reality is going to make more of an impact than the smartphone did. It seems like a lofty claim until you consider the true potential of the technology and the many ways in which it can be used. Devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR can (and do) immerse users in an encompassing virtual environment, some of which look incredibly real. With VR, you don’t just dream of being a race car driver or astronaut — you become them. You can explore entirely new worlds, careers and experiences.

But it’s not just a medium for fun and games. It can be used in the business world, too. Imagine working in a virtual environment where your display and control system is nothing more than an interactive digital element. Soldiers and military personnel can get real, life-like training in a combat simulator. Law enforcement can do the same to prepare for emergency situations and events. The possibilities are truly endless.

Before any of this can happen, however, virtual reality software developers need to craft the kind of experiences, environments and applications that will facilitate such use. Virtual reality is, after all, a digital medium — and just like computers and mobile devices, the apps and environments must be developed from the ground up. This puts a massive amount of responsibility on your average virtual reality developer.

As the industry sees immense growth and adoption, VR developers especially are becoming more in-demand. VR industry revenue is expected to jump from 3.7 billion U.S. dollars in 2016 to over 40 billion U.S. dollars by 2020. Another forecast predicts revenue from the global virtual reality market to reach 21.5 billion U.S. dollarsby 2020.

The takeaway here is that the virtual reality market is growing at a remarkable rate. As it does, more companies and businesses will consider entering the market. That, in turn, will put an even greater demand on the development community as software engineers and VR developers become necessary to bring these experiences to life.

What Kinds of Jobs Are in the Virtual Reality Career Path?

Starting a career in virtual reality is remarkably similar to being a software developer or software engineer. Why? Because you’ll need to become familiar with several computer programming languages as well as common syntax. You’ll also need to have a basic understanding of UX (user experience) design and the hardware your applications will run on. Depending on the platform you choose, you may be faced with unique limitations and requirements.

The older HTC Vive, for instance, is less powerful than the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive Pro. That means any experience you craft for the former platform needs to have memory and performance limitations. This also puts a restriction on how you craft your virtual environments. If you have to create something less lifelike to achieve optimal performance, you’ll need to do it in a way that doesn’t hinder the experience or make your users sick and queasy.

That brings us full circle to the kind of work or jobs you’ll be handling in the virtual reality career field. Pretty much anything you’d see in software development as a common career path is something you’ll also see in virtual reality. This includes positions such as:

  • Content producer
  • Software engineer
  • AR and VR content writers
  • Product management
  • Quality assurance
  • UI and UX design

And much more. Remember that you are creating a piece of proprietary software. Except, instead of crafting the experience for a mobile device, console or computer, you’re doing it for a VR system.

There’s also augmented reality, or AR, which is a subset of virtual reality. Unlike VR, the experiences you craft are merged with the real world. Think “Pokémon Go” or IKEA’s Place app.

Although AR may be used differently — to overlay digital content in the real world as opposed to immersing users entirely in a virtual environment — the development process is the same as VR. For the purpose of this guide, we are simply going to consider them one and the same. Assume any position or job we describe also exists for AR, because it almost certainly does. Just know that AR and VR are intrinsically different in function, albeit not in development.

Outside of entertainment and gaming, virtual reality can be used to deliver real-time training exercises and environments. The soldier example we provided earlier is a great one. But there are other industries that can benefit too, such as education, retail and even the medical industry. In fact, companies like Ghost Productions are already delivering VR experiences in the medical field. Doctors, nurse practitioners, students and all manner of healthcare professionals can train and practice in immersive, life-like environments that give them hands-on time with the tools, methods and situations they’ll be facing in the real world. Imagine students entering the medical field with years of experience under their belt, which they earned simply from practicing on VR platforms.

That is exactly the future we’re looking at, and not just for the healthcare industry. Construction and development, architecture, retail, military, automotive and hardware servicing — all of these industries would benefit from immersive, digital experiences that mirror the real world. Of course, that means developers like you will need to create the experiences and environments necessary for this to happen.

What Is the Job Market for Virtual Reality Developers Like?

At times, software development and IT work can be extremely competitive. The exception would be modern cybersecurity, which has seen a recent talent shortage. You might not think so, but the virtual reality industry parallels cybersecurity in many ways. In fact, many believe that VR and AR can be used to protect business processes.

The more important thing to consider is whether or not the VR and AR market is just as competitive. Luckily, at the present moment, it is not. But as the technology becomes more prevalent and more organizations adopt it as part of their normal processes and product lines, the demand for developers with virtual reality experience will also increase.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a hard field to get into — nor that there are few credentials to be earned. You can’t just hope to jump directly into one of the many virtual reality careers with little experience and knowledge. Most, if not all, VR development companies like to see a decent resume for the personnel they hire, including direct experience working with the technology and developing successful applications and software.

How to Get Started

Knowing all this, it makes you wonder how and where you can enter the virtual reality development market. Where do you start? Is there a college for virtual reality courses and development? Is there even a virtual reality college major available? The answer to all of these questions is both “yes” and “no.”

Ultimately, you need a software development and technical background if you want to succeed. So, if you’re going to start somewhere, start with that. Choosing a computer science major at most universities or community colleges will set you on the right path, at least initially.

If you’re interested in the software side of the virtual reality industry, you’ll need experience working with 3D modeling and design software, integrated development environments and programming languages such as C or C++, as well as graphics programming and even game development practices.

If you’re more interested in the hardware side of things — like building new platforms, headsets or devices — you’ll need to become familiar with hardware engineering and modern electronics. This requires knowledge and experience with computer and mobile device hardware engineering.

Basic IT or information technology knowledge and skills may also help you make an impact in the industry. Many AR and VR platforms deal with networking and connectivity, along with everything else from the computing equation. Another concern — especially in today’s landscape — would relate to cybersecurity and data handling. The streaming experiences and content delivered on a VR platform will be collecting and amassing data, and it needs to remain secure and private.

Finally, mobile application and software development experience may be an incredibly lucrative path to follow. Did you know that 90 percent of all VR headsets sold worldwide are phone-based? This means mobile development support is just as important as everything else you’ll need to learn. You may even find more opportunities by focusing on a mobile development career path.

What Courses Should I Take? What College Should I Attend?

As discussed above, it’s more about the courses and experience you build before entering the field as opposed to which college or university you attend. The bigger schools and campuses are more likely to have the kind of courses and curriculums you need to earn the proper degree.

That said, the Ringling College of Art and Design is one of the first in the entire country to offer a virtual reality development major. By enrolling and following Ringling’s course path, you’ll earn the necessary skills for virtual reality development, which should put you right on track to hit the ground running.

Ringling alumni and graduates have already earned their place in the working world. Several have gone on to work at Google, Flight School, Hoyt Architecture Lab, Baobab Studios, Titanium Falcon and more. Ringling also has a dedicated career services center to help graduates and students find internships and employment right after earning a degree. Naturally, it’s a great place to set your sights if you’re hoping to become a successful VR developer one day.

As for the courses you’ll attend, here are a few that would help you earn the necessary skills for software development and hardware engineering:

  • Software Industry Foundations
  • Software Engineering and Design
  • Data Structures and System Design
  • Software Development Fundamentals
  • Various Programming Language Courses: Python, Java, C, C++ and more
  • Cloud Computing and Hardware Engineering
  • IT Fundamentals for Business
  • Introduction to DevOps
  • Mobile and Software Application Development

Keep in mind that you won’t necessarily need to complete or pursue all of the courses listed above. It depends on the career and course path you choose and where you would like to end up. A career developing VR and AR software applications, for instance, is going to have a completely different educational path than a hardware engineer who wants to actually build VR headsets and devices.

How to Get a Career in Virtual Reality?

The final segment of our guide will touch on actually seeking and finding employment in the virtual reality industry. How can you go about getting a job after graduation, for example? What are some things to do to stand out from the competition?

Step one is to actually reach out to existing companies and businesses and ask questions. Let them know you’re interested in working in the industry and ask if they have any advice to offer. What do they look for in a potential candidate? What would absolutely get you hired? There’s always a chance that regular correspondence with a contact could help you get your foot in the door, so it’s a great place to start.

Find and reach out to professionals in the industry and see if someone will allow you to shadow them for the day. Sometimes it’s best to reach out to the human resources department at a company instead of various individuals. The goal here is to see firsthand what it’s like working for a company on an active project. This will also allow you see the necessary skills and experience you’ll need to become a part of your average development team.

TechWorld recommends seeking an apprenticeship at an established company. Unfortunately, most apprenticeships don’t come with a significant salary if there’s compensation at all. However, the benefits can be vast, as you’re already working with a company and peers who have direct experience. This will allow you to earn hands-on time, get your name on a project with an established team and gain training and mentorship from skilled professionals.

If you already have software or hardware development experience, you may be better off than most. But you’re still going to be starting at the bottom and working your way up. Not to mention, VR and AR development is remarkably different from standard software and application development. Therefore, it’s a good idea to find a hiring manager or colleague with experience and ask for guidance. You’ll want to understand the difference between working with a VR platform and crafting a standard user experience.

Finally, never stop growing and learning. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the industry or developed your own software for decades. Technology evolves and advances at alarming rates. If you don’t spend the time to stay up-to-date, you’ll be left behind in many ways. The tools and software change, the methods of development change, the focus of various projects will change and the market itself will change. The earlier you realize this, the better off you’ll be. Learn to be malleable and spend as much time growing your knowledge as you do working in the industry — when you land a job, that is.

Becoming the Best Candidate: How to Stand Out

For the time being, VR and AR technologies are considered bleeding-edge and will likely be this way for some time. That means VR development and application companies are looking for individuals that are passionate about the platform but not afraid to take risks. You’ll need to be bold if you want to stand out, and that means staying informed about the latest trends in the industry. If you want to hook an interview or land an opportunity at one of the bigger companies in the business, you need to hone a skill that’s high in demand.

How can you find or discover a desirable skill? Again, just pay attention to the current industry and various trends that are happening. Maybe companies or teams are looking for more of a collaborative player who can work nicely with others. Maybe they want someone experienced enough to come up with their own plans and strategies. Maybe they simply want someone dedicated and passionate enough to stick to a regimen, come hell or high water.

Some of the most valued skills in software development, including VR, are cross-training with various platforms and languages, continuous skill development and innovative problem-solving.

There are some skills and traits you can’t really demo through talking or presenting a traditional resume. Therefore, one of the best ways to make an impact in the industry and stand out from your peers is to build something that can serve as a portfolio. Build an AR or VR application yourself and put it out in the wild. It will take time and patience and may even take some funding. Applications can take a long time to develop with no incoming revenue. That’s why it’s best to handle a task such as this in your free time while you’re focused on your studies and looking for employment.

Other ways to get yourself noticed include attending online courses or seminars, pursuing alternate careers in development, creating an online and professional portfolio and working on open-source projects. Jumping right into an alternate career, for instance, can net you a ton of goodwill in the industry. You could work in project management, general software development or even become a business analyst or data scientist. Later, when you apply for a VR development job, you’ll be scooped up quickly because of your versatile skill set.

Keep Growing

The most important thing to remember — and this is true of any career field — is that you can never give up if it’s truly something you want to achieve. It is possible you may get lucky, meet a contact early and dive right into the industry ahead of your peers. However, it’s also possible that it will take you years upon years of practice and dedication to earn your first VR development gig. You cannot get discouraged, lest you fall by the wayside and never earn your chance.

Following an educational path in the right channel will certainly help. The Ringling College of Art and Design VR curriculum, for instance, can do wonders for your entry into the market. One of the benefits of working with an established school such as Ringling is they have career support options to help you get work after graduation. They also have contacts in the industry simply because alumni are already out there working and making a name for themselves.

At the very least, now you understand what it takes to earn a spot in the virtual reality development industry and what you have to do to get there. Be vigilant and dedicated and continue to grow and learn. You should be there in no time!

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