If I had to choose the most common question I’ve received in these 4 years on the blog, social media, and Quora, I would surely pick “How do I get started with virtual reality?”. Usually, the question is very vague and doesn’t even define exactly what is the sector of XR of interest. It comes out from the passion of someone that has just discovered how immersive realities are beautiful, or maybe from the mind of a student that has just finished the university and wants to find a dream job in AR or VR. Some people even ask if I can become their mentor.
All of this is amazing, and I would like to be the mentor for everyone that wants to enter the immersive realities field, but honestly I don’t have the time and the energy to do that. Even just providing a satisfying answer to everyone on how to get started would be difficult, because everyone comes from a different background and has a different final goal to which he/she can arrive with many different paths.
So, to answer this question once for all, I will tell you how I got started with becoming a professional in VR and also some hints on how you can get started too.
How I got started with virtual reality
Let me tell you about my journey, so that I can show you how I got to become a VR developer, blogger and freelancer. I will briefly highlight all my recent story and how I got started with every new role I covered in the immersive field. If you are not interested in this part, you can skip directly to the next chapter containing the suggestions to help you in getting started.
I’ve always loved computers since when I was a child, and I have always wanted to learn how to program, so it comes to no surprise that I enrolled in computer science engineering at the Politechnic of Turin. Since I loved gaming (who doesn’t love gaming?), I chose the specialization in multimedia and software applications. It was too early for Unity, but they taught me about C++, C#, Java, OpenCV, OpenGL and other fancy development stuff.
During the thesis I started to read many academic papers about computer vision, and one impressed me. It talked about SIFT features and how the inventor used this kind of features to add 3D model of rabbits and teapots on top of a desk and over the hand in a camera video stream. I didn’t know that the name of that thing was “augmented reality”, but it impressed me a lot.
Immotionar and the first contact with AR and VR
Years later, in 2014, my previous classmate Gianni Rosa Gallina called me because he wanted to create a startup about all the fancy things we were discussing in that period, in particular Google Glasses and my obsession about seeing virtual objects on top of the real world.
After some crazy prototypes (yes, I tried to create an AR engine myself, and for like 3-5 seconds it even worked!) and big disappointments (the Google Glass were honestly terrible), we decided that glass-based AR maybe was a bit farther away than we hoped for (it is still far away now, to be honest) and that maybe we could just use Vuforia and Metaio (RIP) with a phone to do some nice stuff. In that period, the Oculus DK2 ordered by Gianni arrived, and he told me that I should go to his office to try that device, and my reaction at that time was like “Oculus what??”.
I arrived the day later and put on my face this black shoebox attached to his PC . I saw myself inside the Tuscany demo, and I felt in love with VR, like IMMEDIATELY. It was magic, I could see myself in a cozy villa in Tuscany with a great garden while I was physically inside a grey office. I was in awe… but after 3 minutes, my stomach said “hey, you choose, or VR or me”. The same day I discovered VR, I’ve also discovered motion sickness :D.
That moment I understood that not only AR, but also VR was incredibly cool, and I decided that it should have become the purpose of my working life. Together with Gianni, I started working under the Immotionar brand, with the purpose of creating innovative XR solutions.
I’ve always been a C/C++ guy, and the prototypes that I had developed before entering the XR field were either in C/C++ or in C#/XNA (who else remembers about XNA?). I thought developing everything VR-related in native code, but while researching how to develop for VR, I discovered that many people abandoned de nerd C++ wei to use a more visual program called Unity. The weakness of the gamedev community disappointed me, but I decided that since everyone was using Unity, I should learn it myself. So, I googled around and found a workshop from a Unity event that taught how to do a Unity game
After having learned the basics of Unity, I imported the Oculus plugin inside the game engine and using the related documentation, I started playing around with it. I analyzed the sample scenes (especially the Tuscany demo that had made me feel so amazed), and learned from it some tricks. Then I started to modify them and creating some toy programs out of them, so that slowly I got used to VR development via experience.
After this training phase, Gianni and I decided to do as our first product a full-body virtual reality system using a multiple kinect setup (yes, it was a bit ahead of time that as well). You can clearly see from the videos that we did our first demos inside the Oculus samples scenes.
Fun fact: in the beginning it wasn’t theoretically possible to use Oculus with Unity free, and you needed to buy Unity Pro. But I found somehow that a Japanese guy had developed a plugin called OVRAgent that was able to let you use the Rift DK2 with Unity free. God bless the Japanese people (it’s a sentence that if you develop for VRChat, for sure you also repeat quite often).
Once I started developing, it was all a matter of getting better by experimenting… and copying-pasting from Stack Overflow
The blog & social media
My carreer as an “influencer” (I hate this world, really) started in 2015 when Gianni advised me to recover an old Twitter account of mine with the nick “Skarredghost” just to make some noise for the startup. I reluctantly did it, I had abandoned that account months before, but in the end, I agreed. I started sharing some news about AR and VR and some updates about what we did, and following people from the community, and for whatever reason, I gained some thousands followers. Since I was getting an audience, I started looking online how I could manage my social media channels better, and I also kept an eye on the social trends of XR, so that to understand what worked well and what not.
When in 2016 a mentor in the European Innovation Academy accelerator suggested me to do marketing for our startup by opening a blog to show that I was an expert in VR, I did it. I started with some really mediocre articles, but again, for some weird reasons, people started reading me. I so started investing more time on my blog, and learning from the articles of other “real journalists” how I should have written my posts. Also reading books helped me in improving my writing skills.
The more time I invested in my blog and social media, the more I also got connections with interesting people in the field from which I learnt a lot.
The entrepreneurial career
The beginning of my entrepreneurial carreer was exactly the same moment I started to be an XR developer, and I described it to you above. We had this dream of bringing XR solutions everywhere, and to promote our full-body VR solution, so we tried to make a company out of it. It was very naive the idea of trying to create a company out of some tech skills, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone to do the same as we did.
Immotionar was my first startup and it crashed really bad (here you can read its postmortem), but it was useful for me to learn a lot. Especially, it made us won a grant to participate in the European Innovation Academy accelerator, where some mentors taught me what having a startup really meant. I mean, the importance of marketing (here they gave me the suggestion to open my blog), what investors want, etc…
All the rest came by experience and by connecting with people with complementary skills from mine: public speaking; talking with partners; getting to know potential investors; delivering the works in time; handling the relationships with the customers, etc…
After Immotionar shut down, in 2017, I partnered with the technologist Massimiliano Ariani and we decided to start New Technology Walkers to offer XR consultancies to whoever needed them. Freelancing and offering consultancies required a different mindset from having a startup, so I had to look online what I had to do.
The first step was spamming everyone, and visiting every partner company that I knew to tell them that now I was doing consultancies within a team, and we were open for collaborations. I did this physically, and also virtually on Linkedin, on my website and other channels. This got us some initial little works, until 6 months later, we got our first true AR project. Honestly speaking, the beginning was very frustrating, because finding people that were interested in paying for an XR solution was very hard: many people and companies had some interest, but no one was willing to pay to have a product developed by us.
My work in virtual events started by chance in 2019, when at the beginning of the autumn, VRrOOm CEO Louis Cacciuttolo wrote a post on a WeChat group saying that he was looking for a developer to explore VR events together. I had no interest in virtual events at that time, but it seemed a good opportunity, so I contacted him to see if he was interested in collaborating with me, and he agreed. I started exploring all the social VR environments, one by one, and in the end I chose VRChat because it was the most versatile thanks to the use of Unity. We so started working on some prototypes for virtual events by using the VRChat SDK and by trying the many tools that the VRChat community had created and shared for free.
The first experiments with virtual events were quite mediocre and never went live, but then the partnership with the creative people at MID made the team more complete. In 2020, the pandemic gave us a big boost and in the end the project skyrocketed.
How you can get started with virtual reality
So, after having told you about my personal experience, here you are my pieces of advice for you that want to get started in becoming a professional in AR or VR.
Just START. If you read my story above, it’s all about trying things to see how they go, start projects by chance, and learning by doing. Some people think that to get started in AR and VR, you should follow an expensive course that teaches you everything, that leads you to know VR. Well, this has never happened to me. And honestly, whatever course I have ever followed in my life (including the University or the evening lessons to learn Chinese), it never lead me to learn everything about the topic it should have taught to me. The course gave me the foundations, but it was up to me to go on learning by experience (and yes, it also meant trying to speak in Mandarin to confused Chinese people in China).
Don’t expect to be a “Road To VR” (sorry Ben Lang), because there is not a perfect path to get started in VR. It doesn’t even really matter how you get started, just start, today, with whatever tool you find most suitable: it may be an online tutorial, it may be an evening course, a master, it can be a book… whatever you do want. Start learning VR, start doing VR. I’ve started in the craziest way possible both in being a developer (I just watched a Youtube video) and a blogger (I wrote a terrible first post in a free web space), but then I improved over time. This is what matters the most, the process: you must keep learning and improving over time to become and esteemed VR professional.
Understand what you want to do in VR
There are many possible professions that you can do in VR. So, first of all, you have to decide what you want to do. Do you want to be a developer? An evangelist? The CFO of an XR startup? There are many things that you may do in the VR field, depending on your passions and your expertise. So, decide exactly what kind of professional you would like to become before even getting started.
You have to make this clear to yourself and to the external world during your outreach efforts, so that everyone knows what kind of professional you are and you may be identified in that way. Being just a “VR enthusiast” is only good for chatting in the communities, but being identified as a “Unity VR expert” or “VR startups serial entrepreneurs” can lead to some serious jobs and business opportunities.
Some specific hints to get started
Let me tell you some specific hints on how to get started from my experience in the field, depending on the kind of job you want to land.
Many people write to me because they want to become XR developers. My suggestion to them is to start first of all to learn Unity and C#, or Unreal and C++. Unity is easier and has a stronger community, but Unreal has better graphical performances and better support for enterprise. If in doubt, choose Unity.
There are many tutorials about Unity, and just by looking on Youtube, you can find thousands. Unity has also an official Tutorial section and also a complete Documentation form which you can learn (there is also a specific section about VR). Once you’ve done learning Unity, pick a virtual reality headset and look for its SDK and the related documentation. Download the samples, read the guide, and start experimenting with them.
After that, you can choose a framework that may help you in the development of the basic features of XR experiences (grabbing, teleporting, etc…), like MRTK or VRTK, or just go by the standard Unity tools (like the XR Interaction Toolkit). Even here, the related tutorials and samples can guide you to get started.
If you prefer a more structured approach, there are some online courses that may help you, like this Nanodegree on VR Foundations on Udacity, or this course on VR development made by Oculus in collaboration with Unity.
Once you have learned the basics and you have decided what are the tools that you like the most (e.g. Unity with MRTK), the best thing you can do is developing a small XR experience. Don’t choose something too complex or you will never finish it (been there, done that). Choose something simple, that you can finish in a week or two, and that shouldn’t be released. You need a toy program that you develop from the beginning to the end, without too much pressure. By actively learning it, you will start learning by doing, and you will learn so many new things that just watching a course hadn’t thought you. When you have finished it, probably you master enough VR that you can do a bigger project.
If you want to become a blogger, youtuber or social influencer, your main skills should be about communication. My suggestion here is to choose the channel that is suitable the most to you (e.g. I like writing, so I’m a blogger) and then read some online articles that suggest to you how to get started. Then, spend some time to see what the others are doing in the field.
If you want to become a blogger, read what the journalists of Road To VR or Upload VR are writing. If you want to become a Youtuber, you can study Nathie, Mike Virtual Reality Oasis, Sebastian Ang MRTV, and so on. If you want to become a Linkedin influencer, you can have a look at Cathy Hackl or Alan Smithson. Look what the best ones are doing and let them inspire you. Try to understand what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are successful. I found this analysis much more useful than the online posts promising you “10 secrets to boost your audience 10x”.
Then buy the required tools (a good camera and mic to become a Youtuber; a web space to become a blogger; etc…) and configure your setup (I’m sure you will find a bazillion tutorials about this). When you’re ready, as I said above, just start. Try to mix the best features you have identified in the most successful people in your field with your unique and peculiar characteristics and create your own style. Start with your first video/post, that most probably will suck, but no worries, you have no followers, so no one will blame you. Keep learning watching the others and learning by practice from your errors, until your videos will start to satisfy you. Also try different styles and topics to see what people like the most. For instance, I’ve noticed that on my Youtube channel, the “How To” posts and the Interviews have been the most successful ones, so now I know that I should invest more time on them.
If you want to have a VR startup, you have first of all to find the product that you want to sell. This product that you want to sell may also be your expertise, and in this case you become a consultant.
There are many posts outside there on how to build a startup (I’ve written them myself, too), so I’m not going into much details here, but what I want to say is that to get started:
- You must have an idea of a product that you are sure that people would like to pay to have. Not something that you personally like, not something that you are passionate about, but something for which there is a paying market of customers. Remember: a startup is all about the money. Without a survey, a test, or whatever tool that certifies that there are people that want your product, your risk a serious failure;
- You must have a team of people that are as passionate as you: doing startup alone is very difficult. Try to find someone that is talented, passionate, that complements your skills (e.g. if you are a techie, try to find someone that has financial/commercial skills), and who you like to work with;
- You must have some budget: I tried doing startup with zero money, and I can tell you that is mission impossible. You have to pay for the devices that you need, for some consultants to make the business going, for yourself (rent, food, etc…) while you wait for earning the first money.
If you don’t have a breakthrough idea, you can offer your services to someone else that has his/her own dream, a bit like me helping Louis on his virtual event journey. If you have an idea and not a team, you can write about your idea on forums, communities, etc… until you find someone interested. Talk about it to all the other VR professionals that you know, and maybe someone will agree in working with you. If you are ok with working with juniors, you can write in the forums/communities of University students. Incubators and accelerators also sometimes work as aggregators, so you can ask them if you can join some team. There are also startupping hackatons in various cities where you can meet other interesting people you can partner with.
Becoming a freelancer is easy. Finding customers is hard.
When I started trying the freelancing carreer, I found many difficulties in finding the first paying customer. When you start, no one knows that you are on the market, and this means that you have to find the courage to go out and tell whoever you can that you are a freelancer and you do VR. You must go to events, tell all your friends that you are a VR consultant, go visiting all the companies you know, have a website, show yourself on Linkedin, etc… You have to be a bit shameless, and also try to get all the opportunities that may arise around you.
Getting started with VR freelancing means trying to tell the biggest number possible of people what you do, however you can. I’ve found the most valuable digital tool on this front to be Linkedin. And I also found that the things that attract the most potential customers are projects you’ve actually developed. Being a thought leader is nice, but I’ve got much more potential leads by publishing on Linkedin “I’ve made this” than I’ve got by writing “I think this” or “I’ve won this award”. So, if you are not working for a customer, do something interesting by yourself or with a team of other freelancers, and then spam everywhere about what you have just done.
If you’re ok with starting with very low rates, you can also try with platforms like Upwork and Fiverr that try to connect the demand with the request. Personally, I’ve avoided them because the wage was ridiculous for my experience in the field.
As a final suggestion, find a good tax consultant. Usually you can handle all the contability all by yourself, too, but I chose to pay for a very professional (and a bit expensive one) because:
- It saves me the time that I should employ to handle my taxes, so I can just focus on my work;
- He’s always ready to answer all my questions on all the weird situations I’m in, like a contract I’ve signed in China;
- He’s smart and with his decisions has already made me spare much more money than I gave to him.
I’ve spoken about the sectors for which I have a direct experience, so I could tell you a satisfying answer. Here you are some other professionalities for which I can give you some hints, not driven by my experience, but from what I’ve learnt from other people:
- 3D Artist. I’ve tried to learn to draw several times, but IMHO just some online lessons aren’t enough. If you want to become a 3D artist, it’s better if you enroll in a course where there is a teacher following you that can teach you the basics of drawing and 3D drawing. In every city there are some courses for gaming, design, architecture, or comics. In Italy for instance there is the Event Horizon school or the Big Rock. Enroll in one of them, and learn how to become a 3D modeler. If you are already an artist and you just need to learn a modeling program, go for Blender: it is completely free, there are tons of free tutorials online, and it has also a VR viewer mode. Once you’ve learned how to model 3D Assets, the only thing that you should learn for VR is how to optimize them for mobile hardware like the Oculus Quest, and how to get used in modeling for the engine that the developers are using (Unreal can import almost everything, but Unity can be a nuisance when importing materials);
- Game designer. To learn the basics of game design, it is better if you enroll to a gaming school with a course on game design. In alternative, you can buy some books about the topic. Game design is about understanding how to design a game that is entertaining, and you have to understand the rules behind it. Once you got all the basics, you must play lots of VR games, try to understand the choices they did on a game design standpoint, and take inspiration from them for your future games. When we did HitMotion: Reloaded, our game designer Massimiliano Ariani played all the fitness games on the market so that to take inspiration from their best design solutions;
- UX designer. Similarly to the game designer, you can find some books teaching you the basics of UX/UI design. There are also some online articles that teach you the basics of UX/UI design in VR (Iike this and this), and some people you can follow for inspiration like Volodymyr Kurbatov, Denis Kuehnert and Daniel Beauchamp. There are also interesting courses like the one on hand interactions in VR offered by XR Bootcamp;
- Multimedia creator. If you don’t know how to code, but you want to start experimenting with creative stuff in XR, maybe you can start with AR filters. They’re easy to be developed, let you create innovative things and have a wide audience. You can start experimenting with SparkAR or Snap Lens Creator, for instance.
- Electronics/Optics/Ergonomics engineer. Here the field is very specific and technical, and you must have a very solid knowledge got from your university (e.g. you studied electronic engineering) or from a long experience in the field. It may be useful to connect with experts in the field from the communities and read the blog articles of the top voices, like Karl Guttag for what concerns optics or Rob Cole for ergonomics.
Mind the process
As I said above, it doesn’t matter that much how you get started, but it matters the process that you have to apply every day. After you have started, the goal should be to be consistent and alway try to improve. For instance, to be a good VR developer, you should keep studying: you can learn new frameworks (maybe you discover that MRTK is perfect for you needs and you start studying it) and discover new features introduced by Unity (e.g. the entity framework); you can study the opensource projects you find around to get to know how to write quality code; you can read books that teach you how to become a better software architect so you organize better your projects; you can actively look for tips from other developers, like the below video shot by the amazing Lucas Rizzotto.
You must keep an always-be-learning mentality. And you should keep actively developing projects for others or just yours. Practice will make you better. There is a theory that says that if you do something for 10,000 hours, you master it and become an expert. Well, you must practice a lot, and it won’t matter where you started, you will end up being an expert.
Remember that consistency is the key, and this is particularly important if you want to become an influencer: in the beginning, no one will consider you, and you must spend a lot of time producing content that no one will see. It is very frustrating, and many people give up in this phase, but it is only with your consistency all overy the months that you will succeed. It took me years to create a little community around my blog and to get connected with important people in the field. Not weeks, but years. Remember this, whatever job you want to start.
Courses and Universities
Many people ask me if it is fundamental to enroll to a course or University to master virtual reality. As you can imagine from my previous statements, for sure my answer is no. As I told you, it doesn’t usually matter where you start. I’ve worked in my AR/VR carreer with developers that had a degree or just a diploma, and I can tell you that I found very little differences: all of them were good notwithstanding their studies.
Anyway, having attended University, I can tell you that it can give you some advantages:
- Usually courses and University make you follow a more coherent path. When you have to learn alone by yourself, you must take a piece of info here, another piece there, while at University, you just study and they will give you all the foundation you need in a single place, in an ordered and coherent way;
- University doesn’t teach you just what you want to do (in my case, development), but also teaches you other subjects indirectly related to it (in my case, electronics, maths, geometry, etc…). This becomes very important when you have to collaborate in multidisciplinary projects, because you know better how to interact with other professionals. Furthermore, my strong maths foundation has been very useful for me to develop some computer vision or mixed reality projects (yes, also the augmented reality plugin for the Vive Focus Plus);
- During these courses you meet with other people with which you can collaborate in the future (my first startup has born this way);
- Some big companies absolutely require you to have attended a University and to have obtained your degree with a very high mark. I find it a stupid decision, but that’s it. So, if you want to apply for these companies, you had better enrolling to a prestigious University.
So, if you can afford it and you have the right age, attending a course is always a good idea. In case you want to become a developer, for instance, you can look for courses about VR, game development or just computer science engineering oriented at multimedia, and then go from there. They’re offered at Universities or from private institutions. But if you can not attend a course, you have still many chances to succeed in your life.
Just a final thing: be careful of super-expensive courses that promise to teach you about “VR” for thousands of dollars. Verify if they’re really worth it, or they just use the world VR to get you money.
Whatever you want to be: a blogger, an artist, a developer, etc… try to get to know the biggest number possible of people. As I explain in this article on Thrive Global, “Your network is one of the biggest assets that you have”. If you surround yourself of interesting people, first of all, you will have a richer life, and then you will have more opportunities, you will have people to ask for help when in need for a project, you have people to build something together, you will have advocates that will share your social posts and help you become a thought leader, etc…
Don’t start in VR alone, your life would be super-hard. From day 1, start connecting with people in the VR field on the social media that represent you the most.
Marketing, marketing, marketing
One of the reasons my first startup failed was because we focused like 90% on the product and 10% on marketing. At the European Innovation Academy, they told me that the right proportion should be like 50 and 50. This is because if no one knows you, it’s hard to sell your product. And this rule holds if you have to sell a device, but also if you have to sell your skills.
Doing outreach in general is very important. As I showed you above, the more people you know, the better. But also, the more people know how good you are in what to do, the better. If you share what you can do on social media, if you keep your Linkedin account well-organized, etc… some people may notice you and new opportunities arise. The more communities you are connected in and you share the content in, the better, so you can reach more people. This is true if you are a developer, a startupper, and even more if you want to become an influencer. So start looking for VR communities around: there are nice ones, like for instance the Oculus subreddit or the Virtual Reality group on Facebook, or the XR Story group on WeChat.
I’ve noticed that you never know who is going to see your content: once I got many people to ask me to correct a post of mine where I had erroneously indicated that Reggie Watts was part of the Grease AR project by Intel. I made an error that made some people pretty angry. I was a bit embarassed about it, but the creative director Diego Prilusky told me “think about it as a good news. It means that someone at Hollywood has read your blog”. I don’t know they got there, but it happened.
And don’t limit yourself to social media only: talking about what you do as a speaker during an event (physical or digital) can give you a big boost as well, especially if the event is an important one.
Without doing outreach, you are automatically limiting your possibility to know new people; to create opportunities; to impress someone; to make money; etc… So, use your social media channels and showcase your work. But please, don’t be annoying: don’t post too much about what you do, don’t try to force people to like what you do/say. Sometimes you must speak, others you must listen to others, because also by looking what others are doing and commenting on it, you can open yourself to new important connections.
Read AR/VR related news
You don’t work in a vacuum. While you do your job, there are many new things happen in the XR ecosystem, and you should be informed about new projects or new devices. If you are an artist, you may discover a new software to draw in VR (e.g. Quill or Masterpiece VR); if you are a developer, you may find the news about a new development framework (e.g. MRTK); if you are a game designer, you can find new games to study (e.g. Solaris has a pretty cool UI); if you are a startupper, you may discover about a new competitor. And so on. So it is very important if you keep yourself updated about what is happening in the XR landscape.
There are some pretty good AR/VR websites out there, like Road To VR and Upload VR, or VRrOOm. If I can shamelessly promote myself, every week I publish a roundup of the best AR and VR news of the week and you can read it here or receive it via email by subscribing to my newsletter.
Staying updated is very important for your professional success, and also gives you many topics to discuss about with your other peers in the XR communities. Please do that from day 1.
And that’s it with this very long post! I hope to have given you some hints on how to get started with your carreer in AR and VR. Now it’s time to work on it… good luck for your professional future!
(… and if you want to support my professional future, please support this blog with a donation on Patreon :D)
(Header image shot by Anesio Neto)
The post How I got started with virtual reality (and you can, too) appeared first on The Ghost Howls.