Women in Engineering: Virtual and Augmented Reality


It’s National Women in Engineering Day on the 23rd of June and, in the run up, we’re showcasing the skills of some of the hardworking women within the industry.

This year’s sub-theme is #RaisingProfiles, so, to do this, we’re dedicating a week of blog posts to raise awareness of some of the exciting roles engineering has to offer – beginning with the rising popularity of virtual and augmented reality.

What is the difference between virtual and augmented reality?

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are popular topics at the moment and it’s not surprising when some are predicting the industry will be worth $150 billion by 2020!

Many of us have been sucked into the hype of upcoming products. Google Glass, Oculus Rift and HoloLens all fall into the virtual/augmented reality category, and, along with future AR/VR productions, have the potential to make billions in revenue over the next few years.

Both could considerably enhance technology, entertainment, science and medicine, but what’s the difference?

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a fully immersive experience. This artificial, computer-generated simulation crafts a completely virtual world users can interact with. This is normally achieved by wearing a helmet or goggles and is predominantly used for gaming and entertainment or for training, such as flight simulations.

Although it holds the advantage when it comes to living room entertainment, it’s not ideal for use whilst doing everyday things, like walking down the street.

Hence, this is predicted to bring in less cash than AR – though, when looking at the success of the gaming industry, it’s still likely to be a hugely profitable industry.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality, in comparison, is more open and only partly immersive; you can see through and around it.

The real money maker of the two, AR uses computer technology to layer virtual things onto you, the user’s, existing world – essentially, augmenting it.

Arguably not as fun for gaming, where a fully immersive experience might be preferable, AR has the upper hand thanks to its potential to play a key a role in our lives, perhaps eventually rivalling mobile phones.

Courses and jobs within the virtual and augmented reality industries

The rise in popularity and demand for virtual and augmented reality products means it’s an exciting time to consider a career in these rapidly growing, and lucrative, industries.

Demand for skills within these fields is up almost 40% year-on-year, and growing. Jobs are appearing throughout diverse industries, including scientific services, education, retail and manufacturing. And, since the concept of AR and VR is so new, few have been exposed to it, meaning experience is not only in demand, but tougher to come by.

This, in turn, has led to an increase in courses and master’s degrees focused on virtual reality engineering, including Glasgow School of Art’s MSc in Visualisation, as well as Swansea University’s MSc in Computer Modelling and Finite Elements in Engineering Mechanics.

The scope of roles available in this field is vast. Oculus Rift, for example, is currently employing for software and hardware opportunities, with roles ranging from Graphics and Mobile Engineers, to Electrical and Systems Engineers.

Women in virtual and augmented reality engineering

The rapid growth in VR and AR popularity has also seen a significant amount of females taking an interest in the field – there’s even an online publication dedicated to women in virtual reality.

Below are some of the women already having an impact on the industry.

Nonny de la Pena

Nonny is the brains behind the immersive journalism experience, Hunger in Los Angeles, which debuted at Sundance back in 2012.

At the time, viewers wore duct-taped googles but, despite this, people were lining up to participate.

After completing a basic programming course whilst at Harvard, Nonny became a documentary filmmaker. Realising the potential for VR in news storytelling, her ambition is to use the technology to renovate journalism by combining gaming engine tech with photos, architectural drawings and audio, such as calls to emergency services.

Jeri Ellsworth

An incredibly talented entrepreneur, Jeri taught herself to program as a child by reading the manual to her brother’s Commodore 64 computer.

Her latest venture, castAR, is an augmented and virtual reality technology company founded by her and Rick Johnson. In 2013, she announced the scheme would be funded via Kickstarter. It reached its goal of $400,000 in just 56 hours, finishing at $1.05 million – 263% above the target.

Launch of the product was recently postponed, but to compensate early supporters, the business pledged to return crowdfunded money – enhancing the hype for this product further.

Elizabeth Baron

Elizabeth heads up Ford’s Immersive Virtual Environment (FiVE) lab after she pointed out the potential of VR to her bosses over a decade ago.

The team uses VR technology to allow designers and engineers to experience a vehicle before it’s built. Users can view the vehicle from a customer’s perspective via a range of environments, including a room where you can walk around a virtual car and programmable model.

The future for women in virtual reality

Demand for roles within the realm of AR and VR engineering are on the up, which means the opportunity for women to get involved is too.

Couple the growth in dedicated courses with the call for more women to consider a career in engineering and the prospects look extremely positive.

From gaming and filmmaking, to vehicle production and flight simulation, it seems the choices are endless too!