What started mainly as technology for gaming companies is spreading into software, wearables, education, healthcare, retail, the U.S. military and elsewhere. Virtual and augmented reality have come into their own and are responsible for some of the most fascinating advancements in modern technology.
Where virtual reality usually relies on a user wearing some sort of device, such as a helmet or goggles, to interact with a virtual world, augmented reality attempts to provide a virtual experience that blends into the real world by enhancing what you see, hear and feel. For example, the Oculus Rift and Vive headsets are well-known VR technologies for gaming. One early use of augmented reality was the first-down line you see during televised football games. But next-generation AR includes things like the military's Tactical Augmented Reality (TAR) eyepiece for situational awareness, which will eventually replace night-vision goggles, and MIT's SixthSense.
Although VR and AR are separate entities, they often turn up in the same discussions. So, we'll follow an emerging industry trend by referring to them collectively as "XR," short for "extended reality."
The combined XR market is soaring. According to Statista, market size was around $6.1 billion in 2016 but is expected to reach $215 billion by 2021. Although companies have spent several years developing and refining this technology, demand for skilled XR professionals is experiencing a major uptick as more and more technologies make it out of R&D and enter the marketplace.
Types of jobs and salaries
As you might guess, development figures prominently in the XR job market. But there are many more roles in the XR biz in need of people. Developers typically collaborate closely with software designers and 3D artists, as well as design architects and engineers who plan and create the hardware on which XR software runs. System validation engineers test those systems and help resolve technical issues, and circle back with developers to ensure applications get modified accordingly.
Project managers – another hot job area in XR – coordinate and oversee entire development teams, interface with other business units, and work with clients (if projects aren't purely internal). Then there's an entire marketing, sales and distribution arm that takes XR products to market and eventually put them into customers' hands (or around their heads).
What do XR professionals earn each year? Several sources put the starting average U.S. salary for XR in the range of $75,000 to $80,000, and the top end around $200,000. But that covers a wide swath of job roles. Indeed.com breaks down average salaries by popular technical job roles, such as $91,865 for developers, $106,673 for mobile developers and $107,212 for solution engineers.
Essential background and skills
Because so many different XR positions are available, let's focus on development and management. Employers are looking for XR developers with two to three years of experience developing responsive applications, especially 3D and/or animation development, usually within Agile Scrum engineering teams. Some employers seek developers with design skills as well.
You'll need moderate to advanced proficiency with at least one XR platform, such as Unity, or emerging products. You must also be highly skilled in C#, C++, Java or a similar language. Depending on the project, you may also need a background in motion capture, gesture recognition, networking, math and simulated physics. You'll frequently see a bachelor's degree in computer science, software engineering or equivalent as a preferred or required qualification for such positions. [Read related story: Best Resources for Learning How to Code]
The XR project manager (aka project lead, innovation lead or computer vision manager) should have ample experience working on XR projects, often as a developer or engineer who decided to jump onto the management track. Employers look for people with a strong background overseeing technology projects in general throughout the development lifecycle, from inception to a viable product. They also look for people with broad knowledge of emerging technologies, trends and industry best practices.
A bachelor's degree in engineering, computer science or a related discipline is usually required, along with at least five years of professional experience. As is the case with all project management positions, strong written and verbal communication skills are necessary, as are strong leadership capabilities.
Regardless of the job role you choose, if you want to work for the federal government, U.S. military or a contractor, you must qualify for a security clearance.
Do you have programming skills but not know where to start? Consider learning Unity. The company's documentation is freely available, and you can go through a set of free tutorials and live training from home. You'll likely have to invest in some equipment, such as a headset, but if you're avidly interested in XR, chances are you've already done that.
Then practice, practice, practice until you feel comfortable with XR development, and create a portfolio of projects that showcases your work.
Google, Facebook, Snap (Snapchat), NVIDIA and HTC are some of the top XR players in the market. A search on LinkedIn Jobs (one of the best sites for XR jobs) and Indeed.com for "virtual reality <job role>" or "augmented reality <job role>" in the United States will turn up hundreds of jobs – more for VR than AR currently. Most of those positions are located either in California or on the East Coast. But don't assume you must work for a large corporation, which may or may not be in your locale – many small companies are cutting a path into XR too, and freelance work is on the rise.
Be sure to look for a local tech meetup group focused on XR (or artificial intelligence), which can be a valuable source of networking in general, job openings and a way to sharpen your skills.
Good luck with your career efforts in XR.