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The state of AR and VR in Asia: Highly developed working practices and a strong pipeline of students

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have been on the cusp of widespread adoption for many years now, but technical and commercial hurdles have impeded this process. For VR at least, it seems that 2020 could be the year when the technology goes truly mainstream - there are already several consumer-grade headsets available on the market and many game studios are following Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx into VR with their own AAA titles. AR, though now ubiquitous on smartphones and available for many industrial applications, still lags behind in adoption due to the more complex technical challenges such as object occlusion. That said, the recent rumours around Apple’s entry into the Mixed Reality (MR) space may spark a wave of innovators hoping to get the jump on them.

What we do know is that as VR, AR and MR achieve greater market penetration, not only will more developers be needed to create the immersive worlds and experiences that consumers demand, but artists and designers will also be required to populate these worlds with convincing inhabitants, create 3D assets and help to realise a creative vision. Fortunately, there is no shortage of hobbyists involved in AR and VR. As we discuss in our State of the Developer Nation report, not only are most people in AR or VR involved as hobbyists but around a quarter of those who work professionally in the two sectors still consider themselves to be hobbyists on the side.

We also discovered that a lot of developers in AR and VR were taking on many different roles, often those that aren’t traditionally associated with being a software developer. In fact, we coined a new term to describe those people who not only write code but who also dip their toes into more traditional creative endeavours. Enter the Hybrid Developer, and we’ll find out more about her very soon indeed.

At SlashData, as the analysts of the developer economy, we have traditionally been focused on understanding developers. But given the contributions that people in more artistic roles make to many sectors, especially to AR and VR, we felt that in order to truly understand this transformational technology, we needed to understand those people who help shape how it looks and feels. So, for the first time, we sought out people working in AR and VR in non-developer roles. We asked artists, creators, filmmakers and their ilk just what it’s like to work in AR and VR and here I’ll be sharing some of our most interesting findings.

What, exactly, is a Hybrid Developer?

First things first. Let’s understand more about these so-called Hybrid Developers. These are people that have a traditional developer role (a software engineer, or a DevOps specialist, for example), but who also take on more creative or artistic roles (artists and filmmakers, for example). This means that we can fit people involved in AR and VR into three categories:

  1. Pure developers - people who only have developer roles

  2. Hybrid developers - people who have both developer and creative roles

  3. Non-developers - people who don’t have developer roles

Generally speaking, around 63% of those involved in software development projects are pure developers, 21% are non-developers, and 15% are in hybrid roles. But people involved in AR and/or VR show very different behaviour. The distribution amongst these roles is much more even, with fewer pure developers (39%), slightly more hybrid developers (31%) and twice as many non-developers. This is a pattern that is replicated, to a greater or lesser degree across many regions, but it is in South and East Asia where these differences are most pronounced.

East Asia is further along the curve for adoption of AR and VR

East Asia has very quickly adopted AR and VR, with almost two in five people involved in software development projects contributing to this sector in some way. But as well as being ahead of the curve in terms of the sheer number of people involved in the sector, non-developer AR/VR practitioners here find it easier to enter the space.

From the chart above you can see that in East Asia, AR/VR practitioners are more than twice as likely to be non-developers than people elsewhere in the world. We see this phenomenon replicated to a lesser extent for people not involved in AR/VR, with a correspondingly lower proportion of hybrid developers. We can draw two conclusions from this:

  1. In East Asia, people involved in software development projects are more specialised, taking on fewer hybrid roles.

  2. Non-developers in East Asia contribute more towards software development projects than elsewhere in the world

Looking to South Asia, the spread of roles in this region is much more balanced - not only does this region have a healthy proportion of hybrid developers, but the distribution of AR/VR practitioners between the three categories of pure, hybrid and non-developers is fairly even. Many AR/VR practitioners here have a balanced and varied skill set, with four in ten of them taking on hybrid roles, and this is something that we see replicated in other developing regions, such as the Middle East and Africa.

What types of roles are AR/VR practitioners taking on?

When we delve more deeply into the developer and non-developer roles that AR/VR practitioners take on, we can tease out some more important insights. The chart below shows a subset of all the roles we ask about (out of a total of 25). In East Asia, only two in ten AR/VR practitioners identify as programmers or developers, the lowest of all the regions, and much less than the rest of the world, where almost half of AR/VR practitioners identify as developers. This is another result of the rapid adoption of AR and VR in East Asia - non-developers have been able to enter the space more easily, and the whole AR/VR ecosystem is at a later stage of maturity.

The incidence of AR/VR practitioners in East Asia that identify as product managers, marketers or salespersons provides further evidence for this - once development practises have matured, productisation and monetisation take a front seat. Here, East Asia is also ahead of the curve.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that although East Asia has a much lower proportion of developers, there is not a correspondingly dominant role in East Asia which makes up for this. These ‘missing’ roles aren’t simply hiding in the ones I haven’t shown here. Instead, AR/VR practitioners in East Asia simply do fewer roles. 62% of them take on only a single role, compared to 47% of AR/VR practitioners in the rest of the world. Only 11% of them do four or more roles, compared to a whopping 27% in the rest of the world. Generally speaking, taking on many different roles is a hallmark of being involved in AR/VR (as we discussed in our State of the Developer Nation report), but this is resoundingly not the case in East Asia. Specialisation is another result of a sector maturing - roles become more defined and people have to wear fewer hats, working instead collaboratively in specialised teams.

Finally, without wanting to labour the point, the lower incidence of data scientists and machine learning developers is yet another sign that East Asia is ahead of the curve. Data science and machine learning are foundational to the success of VR, and in particular, AR. Many of the advances here have come from image recognition and other technologies which mitigate some of the hardware difficulties faced by people creating for AR and VR. You might expect this to be reflected in the number of AR/VR practitioners identifying as data scientists, but this is not the case. One viewpoint is that these low numbers are simply a correlation with the lower number of developers in general. But it’s also possible that those who are into AR and VR use a higher level of abstraction - instead of building machine learning models, they simply plug into an API and get the results they need and don’t consider themselves data scientists.

As AR and VR become more established in other regions, we can expect to see many of these phenomena filtering throughout the globe, although the differing cultures and economic situations at play mean that each region will develop its own idiosyncrasies. This said, one good indicator that a sector is in ascension is a high proportion of students, and here, South Asia is ahead of the curve, with over half of AR/VR practitioners here identifying as students. Granted, there are more students in South Asia across all the sectors, but it’s particularly high for AR and VR (51%, compared to 38% for those not involved). South Asia is definitely a region to watch for AR and VR development in the future.

If this post has piqued your interest or sparked some interesting questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out and let us know. We hold rich and varied information on people involved in AR and VR, and we’re adding to it all the time!

We’re currently running the 19th wave of our Developer Economics survey, so if you’d like to take part and get your voice heard, then you can do so here.


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