Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are burgeoning fields responsible for some of the most fascinating advancements in modern technology. Although VR and AR are different, they frequently turn up in the same discussions and are often referred to collectively as XR, for extended reality.
XR technologies are fueling new in-demand career skills and exciting job opportunities. While this technology is typically associated with gaming companies, career opportunities in software, wearables, education, healthcare, retail, the U.S. military and more present myriad options for professionals.
We’ll look at the technology behind VR and AR and explore career opportunities in this rapidly growing arena.
VR and AR are part of a technology spectrum – often called the metaverse – that blurs the lines between the physical and digital worlds.
In virtual reality, a user typically wears a device, such as a helmet or goggles, to interact with a virtual world. For example, Oculus Rift (produced by Facebook parent company Meta) and Vive headsets are well-known VR technologies in the gaming realm.
Augmented reality can be more subtle. AR attempts to provide a device-free experience that brings digital enhancements to what you see, hear and feel. For example, an early AR use was the yellow first-down line seen during televised football games.
Next-generation AR includes advancements like the military’s tactical augmented reality (TAR) eyepiece for situational awareness, which will eventually replace night-vision goggles. Another example is MIT’s SixthSense, a wearable technology that lets users interact with digital information via natural hand gestures. For example, with this technology, a user could interact with a projected map using only hand gestures.
The combined XR market is expanding rapidly. According to Precedence Research, the market was around $26.4 billion in 2021 but is expected to reach $345 billion by 2030.
Although companies have spent years developing and refining XR technology, demand for skilled XR professionals is experiencing a significant uptick as more technologies emerge from R&D and enter the marketplace.
As you might guess, custom software development figures prominently in the XR job market. But there are many more roles in the XR space:
It’s difficult to pinpoint precise salaries because of the broad swath of job types and roles in the industry, as well as geographic and seniority considerations.
For example, according to Circuit Stream, the average salary for XR software engineers is $101,000, with top earners receiving $155,000. In contrast, the base salary for an XR developer is $79,000.
Glassdoor estimates that AR and VR developers earn about $93,000 annually, with the highest earners topping $150,000.
ZipRecruiter breaks down average national salaries by popular technical job roles, such as $97,269 for VR developers and about $107,000 for AR designers. However, depending on location and seniority, some professionals can earn nearly twice as much as these averages.
Because so many different XR positions are available, we’ll focus on development and project management job skills.
Employers want XR developers with the following:
Employers look for the following in potential XR project managers:
If you have programming skills but don’t know how to get started in an XR career, consider learning Unity. The company’s documentation is freely available; you can go through free tutorials 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.
Practice extensively until you feel comfortable with XR development, and create a portfolio of projects that showcase your work.
Google, Meta and Amazon are some of the top XR players in the market. A LinkedIn job search (one of the best sites for XR jobs) and a search on 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 in California or on the East Coast. But don’t assume you must work for a large corporation that may or may not be in your area. Many small companies are cutting a path into XR, and freelance work is on the rise.
Look for local tech meetup groups focused on XR (or artificial intelligence), which can be a valuable source of networking and job openings and a way to sharpen your skills.
For many of us, XR has yet to become part of our day-to-day existence. However, it’s easy to see it will weave itself into our personal and professional lives. For professionals with ambitious career goals, especially those with technical skill sets, it’s a field worth exploring.
Alex Halperin contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.