Tech giants including Facebook and Google are investing heavily in VR and AR–but few people in the industry actually have the skillset needed to develop games and enterprise experiences on the platforms, experts say.

Enter Unity: Originally launched in 2005 as a game engine, the platform has since garnered millions of users. It allows developers to export their product to more than 26 different platforms, including iOS, Android, PC, Xbox, and PlayStation. In the past two years, it added AR and VR platforms, including Google Cardboard and Daydream, HTC Hive, Oculus Rift, Gear VR, Microsoft Hololens, and Playstation VR.

Unity is free to download for anyone who makes less than $100,000 per year. “We want to democratize development,” said Marcos Sanchez, head of global communications at Unity Technologies. “There’s absolutely a demand for VR developers, and the skillsets are going to be different from the skillsets of your typical game developers or filmmakers.”

Several enterprises are using the platform to develop VR experiences, Sanchez said. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been using Unity to develop VR and AR tools for controlling the Mars Curiosity Rover. Other companies have used the platform to create training materials, Sanchez said.

As of this writing, LinkedIn lists 7,973 Unity developer jobs in the US.

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Combined revenue for both the AR and VR markets will hit $162 billion by the year 2020, driven largely by enterprise services, according to a recent study by IDC.

“Pokemon Go made the general public more aware of AR and VR, which is a good thing,” said Mark Arteaga, owner of RedBit Development. “It’s going to be a big marketplace both in gaming and the enterprise.”

Due to their platform-agnostic systems, “game engines such as Unity have allowed for truly prodigious growth in the industry,” said Jerome Solomon, academic dean at Cogswell College. “Independent and smaller developers in particular can find success in this because once a developer learns a system such as Unity, it’s applicable to multiple game projects. If a developer is familiar with Unity for other systems, then it is no different when it comes to VR/AR.”

Development difficulties

Part of the difficulty with developing technologies like VR is a lack of easy to use tools, according to Robert Armstrong, CEO of Appstem. “When Unity adds and promotes a new feature like VR, they are able to instantly reach a large user base of talented developers that are always looking for new ways to innovate,” he said.

We are likely still five to ten years away from seeing compelling VR content, according to Todd Richmond, IEEE fellow and director of the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Southern California, noting that Mark Zuckerberg recently said the same. “It’s a new medium, and we don’t have a language for VR like we do for film or mobile,” he said. “But I’m seeing a definite increase in demand.”

VR content development is still difficult, and requires several different tools, Richmond said. For example, many people do 3D modeling in Maya, and write custom functions in the programming language C#. “It’s a mix of artistic and game development,” Richmond said. “VR right now feels like an offshoot of game development from a technical expertise standpoint, but VR capabilities introduce a whole new set of parameters for which we don’t have a language,” particularly for the human experience side.

Sanchez agrees that we are currently in the earliest days of AR and VR. “A lot of this is new, and we haven’t figured out how to tell stories,” Sanchez said. “All of a sudden the way you tell stories is totally different, when the user has almost complete control over what’s going on and where they look. It’s a language that has to be understood–it’s happening now, but it’s going to take some time.”

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How to learn Unity

The best way to learn Unity development is to download the free platform and start playing with it, tech experts agree. The platform offers a number of user manuals, video tutorials, live online training services, and a certification. The large community of users also connects via Unity Forums.

Less than a year ago, Unity launched Unity Connect, a platform that allows developers to post resumes and employers to post jobs. Several thousand developers and enterprises now use it, Sanchez said.

Demand for AR and VR developers is “extremely strong,” according to Christian Plagemann, director of online learning platform Udacity and former co-founder of the Google VR team and Google Cardboard. In his time at Google, he said it was very difficult to find skilled VR developers. “So many things have to come together–you have to have a sense of design and interaction, and it has to be able to run fast and be efficient. It’s hard to find these experts.”

That was the reasoning behind Udacity’s VR Developer Nanodegree credential program. It costs $199 per month, and students receive 50% tuition reimbursement if they complete the credential within 12 months of the start date.

A broad range of people are interested in becoming VR developers, Plagemann said. “It’s easiest for people who worked in visual areas like game development,” he said. Many others come to it after working in film and storytelling mediums.

Many small studios are currently experimenting with building VR apps for enterprises, Plagemann said.

“The most important point is to jump in and try it and build things,” Plagemann said. “It will not work if you just read about it or take classes and just listen. You have to sit down and do it to understand what the issues are, and what works and what doesn’t.”

Coursera and Eduonix also provide Unity development MOOCs. And there are Unity developer groups in nearly every city across the US, and others across the globe.

At USC, before students start an AR or VR project in Unity, Richmond advises them to have a goal in mind, and to prototype their idea on paper. Developers should ask themselves who the user is, why they are there, what they can do, and where they need to look to move through the experience. Then, download the free platform and start developing in it.

Patric Palm, founder of Favro and Hansoft, recommends learning JavaScript before attempting Unity. He also recommends pairing up with another developer either in person or over the internet to work together. “A lot of creativity comes out of the friction,” he said.

While AR and VR may not be optimal technologies for another few years, the growth rate is astounding, Plagemann said. “There’s a reason why all the big tech companies have started investing heavily in this space,” he added. “All the big players want to make sure they don’t miss the boat on this–it’s the next big thing for mobile.”

Image: iStockphoto/Jacob Ammentorp Lund