Google glass in action. Image credit Google.

Augmented reality (AR) in focus

We take a look at the growing augmented reality industry: what career opportunities are out there, what skills are advantageous, and what are the best routes into the sector.

Put simply, augmented reality (AR) is a technology that places a computer-generated image or material on a person’s view of the real world. Reportedly, the term was first used by Boeing researcher Tom Caudell to describe a digital display being used by aircraft technicians. Currently, AR on its own represents a small part of the IT jobs market but is likely to be a growing one. According to IT Jobs Watch, which tracks the IT jobs market, there were 48 jobs citing AR in IT roles advertised across the UK in three months up to 9 April 2014 but this was up on 29 in the same period last year.

“It is still very much an evolving technology that hasn't yet had a material impact on jobs,” says Richard Nott, website director of specialist IT job board, CWJobs.co.uk, but he adds: “As its commercial application grows in tandem with mobile and tablet use, we would expect to see more related job opportunities.”

To give an indication of its potential, it has been described as the “8th mass medium”, with one to seven including the likes of print, radio, television and the Internet.

What’s happening in the AR sector?

It is a fragmented market with the technology used across a large number of sectors. It has commercial, industrial, retail, military, entertainment and education applications and could range from a relatively simple mobile app designed to engage a consumer to sophisticated aerospace and military training systems. There is a lot of buzz in the area of lifestyle and entertainment applications with the arrival of wearable technology such as Google Glass that can run AR applications.

According to a report from Juniper Research, annual revenues from mobile augmented reality services and applications will reach $1.2 billion by 2015, up from just over $180 million last year and games will deliver the largest revenue stream for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Richard Wilson, CEO of TIGA, the trade association representing the UK games industry, reports that industry leaders are already investing in it.

“Microsoft is said to be applying for over 80 patents related to AR glasses,” he says. “AR also has tantalising potential regarding real world cross-over: imagine playing games outside with a virtual overlay on a physical space or massively multiplayer games where you're running around a park.”

It isn’t just about gaming though, as John McClain, business development manager and creative head for AR initiatives at VirtualMob, which specialises in experiential augmented reality techniques, points out.

"There is a lot of interest in industrial applications even if some of the concepts are just beyond embryonic,” he says. “A practical scenario is this, you can now use 3D recognition to identify a tray of parts in a warehouse or simply assign the parts location in a geo zone. The parts’ shape or location are compared to a central database for recognition. Results are fed back through the AR lens. Future adaptations could include remote hovercraft picking and packing items for shipment. Amazon is in trials using small craft for package delivery in local markets as we speak.”

What skills will be required/opportunities will exist?

Typical job titles that feature AR on ITJobsWatch include developers and programmers for mobile, the Web, .Net, iOS, Android, mobile and C++. Clearly programming, development and design expertise will be in demand but AR demands a range of skills.

“Everything from user interface design to art and data management is relevant to AR,” says Wilson, who believes the sector will start to see a cross-over of skills.

"What's exciting from a skills and jobs point of view is that all the experience being gained in the rapidly emerging world of wearable tech could become directly transferable to the games industry,” he says.  "One only has to look at the coding expertise being brought to bear on projects like Google Glass to see the scope for both new jobs and the application of current skills.”

In particular, he believes the UK needs to invest in the development of high tech skills, including physics, engineering, computer science and design and support universities in their research and teaching activities in these areas. McClain is a good example of the mix of skills needed in AR: his background is in web development and he works with native code but he is also a creative director, working with graphics artists and designers and is client-facing.

Meanwhile Nott says AR developers chiefly need a mixture of advanced computer vision skills, 3D modelling and desktop, web or mobile programming and he adds: “Professionals with AR on their CV demonstrate that they like to stay ahead of the curve; a quality many employers look out for. From a job application perspective, augmented reality can even be used by creative candidates to ensure their application literally jumps off the page.”

Who are potential employers and what are the best routes in?

There are a number of small and start-up businesses specialising in particular sectors of AR and increasingly there are likely to be opportunities in the big software and technology companies.

McClain explains that there are broadly three sides to AR: the marker-based technology which tends to be used more in the retail sector and branding; geospatial; and 3D recognition technologies that are used on the commercial and/or industrial side.

“Individuals should focus on what industry sector interests them most rather than the technology,” he says. “As it is still early days for AR trends it will likely be that these individuals will bring the technology to their chosen sector. The good news is the industry is motivated and is hiring. There are entry-level to senior-level jobs available with start-ups straight through to multi-nationals. The bottom line is AR will define the space we live in and will be at the core of our daily existence within a few short years."

Where can you get more info?

If you can make it to any of the events devoted to AR, you’ll not only see a showcase of applications and technology but may also meet potential employers. The AR Summit takes place in the UK and there are a number of global events, such as Augmented World Expo in California , InsideAR in Tokyo and the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality in Munich where the theme this year is “augment everything, everywhere for everyone”. It is also be worth visiting the European Association for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality website for further information.

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