Today's virtual reality use cases and industry applications Gaussian splatting

What is a VR developer and how do you become one?

Becoming a VR developer requires coding skills, the ability to work fast and a willingness to promote yourself. In a demanding and evolving industry, a thick hide also helps.

What is a VR developer?

If you think a virtual reality developer is someone who creates gaming applications, you'd be partially correct. More accurately, it's someone who is "able to think in 3D," according to Andrew Cornwall, a senior analyst at Forrester.

"A VR developer is a professional who specializes in creating immersive environments for a range of applications," agreed Stephen Ranciato, a VR developer at VR/XR/AR software development firm King Crow Studios. "What drew me into this field was the prospect of working with emerging technologies and the excitement of creating things that have never been created before."

The primary difference between a regular developer and a VR or game developer is that "there's a lot of feel and design and user experience that goes into it," said Riza Resnick, game director and founder at The Skywatchers, a virtual interactive studio.

What are the required skills of a VR developer?

Several specialized skills are necessary to become a VR developer. They include the following:

  • The ability to translate what's on a storyboard into a virtual world.
  • C# and C+ programming languages.
  • Familiarity with 3D file formats such as glTF (Graphics Library Transmission Format or GL Transmission Format).
  • 3D modeling tools such as Blender and Maya.
  • Knowledge of hardware interfacing to maintain fidelity in the real world.
  • Tech proficiency and prowess with a designer and UX mindset.

Roles and responsibilities of a VR developer

The Skywatchers' Riza ResnickRiza Resnick

A VR developer is required to wear many hats, according to Resnick. Someone starting their career in the virtual entertainment industry needs to be a marketer, writer, game designer, programmer and sound designer, 3D modeler, texture artist, animator and tech artist, she said.

VR developers must also be able to quickly make prototypes of what they're trying to do, Resnick added. "You have to make and fail very quickly so you can understand what feels good and what doesn't," she explained. "The problem is, there are no set rules for virtual reality in terms of what is good and what is bad."

And what was considered good or bad in the recent past is subject to change as the technology evolves. An example is the use of text or words in virtual reality. Long considered "notoriously bad" because the text looked pixilated, that practice is changing as developers work on creating specialized typefaces and as VR headsets offer higher resolution. As the technology improves, "the old ideas of what is good and bad are rapidly changing," Resnick said.

The shifting standards and rapid technical changes in the field can make for a demanding work environment. The gaming industry is "pretty harsh on developers," Cornwall noted. "A lot of kids out of school want to go into gaming and the gaming industry will use them up and spit them out." That makes it important for senior VR developers to educate junior ones, he said, "and make sure people are feeling happy and productive."

Forrester's Andrew CornwallAndrew Cornwall

Enterprise VR developers are more likely to work on teams, Cornwall said, so "there's probably less storyboarding going on and more things like digital twins and mapping real-world objects to virtual objects." In this kind of work, VR developers must think about responsiveness, such as how quickly a faucet turns on in a virtual world. "If it behaves differently, you have to account for that," he said.

Testing in a virtual reality realm is significantly different from that in a standard 2D environment, where users interact by pushing on buttons or clicking on a menu item, Cornwall said. "In the virtual reality world, we haven't yet gotten to a standard user interface … Because of that, you can't automate testing, and that falls on a developer," he said.

Courses or certifications required to become a VR developer

Coursera offers more than 25 courses that teach virtual or extended reality and has accumulated nearly 300,000 enrollments, according to a company spokesperson.

The five most popular courses on Coursera are as follows:

  1. Introduction to Virtual Reality from the University of London.
  2. 3D Models for Virtual Reality from the University of London.
  3. VR and 360 Video Production taught by instructors from Google AR & VR.
  4. Making Your First Virtual Reality Game from the University of London.
  5. Intro to AR/VR/MR/XR: Technologies, Applications & Issues from the University of Michigan.

VR developer career path and pay

It's important for a VR developer starting out to have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of creating efficient and organized code, Ranciato said. This can be acquired through traditional schooling, an accelerated coding boot camp or even online beginner classes. Any of these approaches "will be enough to get your foot in the door," he said.

King Crow Studios' Stephen RanciatoStephen Ranciato

Ranciato opted to enroll in a two-year accelerated boot camp that taught most of the languages used in any software environment, such as C, Python, SQL, JavaScript, C# and C++. "All coding fundamentals can be transitioned to another language fairly easily, so don't worry too much about specializing directly in C# or C++ from the start," he said.

Once you have the coding fundamentals, it's important to choose an engine to build these applications. "The two most popular and documented choices are Unity or Unreal Engine," he said. "As a Unity developer myself, I have found it extremely helpful to use this engine, as there are unlimited free resources and guides online to help you at every step."

Unreal Engine is a great tool as well, Ranciato added, but its approach to creating applications is different from what many developers are used to. "The best advice for learning one of these engines is to dive headfirst and try to create personal projects that you enjoy," he said. "This is how I learned and challenged myself when getting started."

What drew me into this field was the prospect of working with emerging technologies and the excitement of creating things that have never been created before.
Stephen RanciatoVR developer, King Crow Studios

Ranciato also recommended that would-be VR developers put together a portfolio of their work. "Jobs in this field have been expanding and will continue to grow as more companies are joining the industry with new hardware," he said, agreeing that aspiring VR developers should just dive in. "There are unlimited resources online to get you started in developing, so there is no right or wrong way to get started," he said.

Resnick said people can post their portfolio either on their personal website or on, Steam or SideQuest. As for the best way to train for the job, she believes VR design classes are a "bit of a mixed bag," and is a proponent of self-teaching. Like Ranciato, she suggested people utilize the resources on Unity's or Unreal's websites.

Pay ranges

In terms of pay, someone with no professional experience as a VR developer might make between $50,000 and $60,000 for U.S.-based jobs, Resnick said. Someone with one to three years of experience could make between $60,000 and $75,000, she said. Experienced VR developers could make between $80,000 and $100,000. "A good, mid-level VR developer should make that," she said.

With more than six years of experience, VR developers should be able to command between $140,000 and $160,000, Resnick said.

Who are the largest employers of VR developers?

Nearly everyone interviewed said the gaming industry is the largest employer of VR developers. Others include big tech companies, but agencies and consultancies also use VR developers for client projects, said Taylor Regan, director of UX and product design at tech consultancy SPR.

Future of the VR career field

Becoming a virtual reality developer today is not for the faint of heart. Following growth in the video gaming industry spurred by the pandemic, the market is now undergoing a correction and an estimated 7,800 developers were laid off in 2023.

SPR's Taylor ReganTaylor Regan

"Layoffs in the video game industry are becoming the norm, even at companies that continue to deliver huge profits," wrote the Communications Workers of America in a January statement reacting to Microsoft's announcement that it was laying off 1,900 video game workers. This "makes clear that, even when you work at a successful company in an extremely profitable industry, your livelihood is not protected," the CWA wrote.

Regan believes the mixed reality field "definitely has a bright future," especially as the technology continues to advance and business use cases become clearer. "There's going to be more commercially broad opportunities with augmented reality; it's just more accessible because you can launch AR solutions on mobile," he said. "You don't need complex headsets -- they're already in the palm of people's hands."

Cornwall noted the shift in the market. The VR developer role "certainly is less relevant than it was a few years ago when a bunch of venture capitalists were pumping up the metaverse," he said. For example, virtual conference rooms are no longer considered as valuable as they were during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies are being more thoughtful about why they develop VR apps. "So, a young person today interested in [becoming a VR developer] will either have to be in gaming or wanting to solve a business problem," Cornwall said.

Echoing Regan, Cornwall said there is more value in virtual, augmented and mixed reality, especially as the technologies improve and glasses and headsets can merge virtual and real worlds more effectively.

Esther Shein is a veteran freelance writer specializing in technology and business. A former senior writer at eWeek, she writes news, features, case studies and custom content.

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