The Interactive & Immersive HQ

Thriving In The Immersive Media Industry

In ever-changing industries it can be hard to feel like you have secure footing underneath you. Especially as media technologies seem to completely change every few years, thriving in this space can feel daunting. But how do your favourite artists do it? They almost make it seem easy and like they’re constantly one (or more!) steps ahead of you. In this post we’ll dig into strategies to thrive in the immersive media industry.

Do I need to learn everything?

There’s a misconception in our industry that you need to physically/mentally be able to do everything on a project. I see this mindset in developers and artists of all experience levels and all over the world. It only leads to frustration, feeling inadequate, and ultimately not really being effective because you end up spreading yourself too thin if you actually try to learn/be good at Unreal, Unity, TouchDesigner, Processing, Max MSP, and MidJourney all at once. I will tell you now, in over 13 years in this industry, I’ve never met anyone who is professionally effective in more than 3 packages. Even that is very rare, most people are actually only professionally effective at 1-2 things.

Should I be a specialist then?

On the flip side, I also have seen a lot of frustration when developers and artists become too silo’d off in their own area of expertise and over specialize. The results of having this mindset is similar to living on top of a hill with cliff edges on all sides. You’re perfectly comfortable while you’re in your domain (on top of the hill), but the moment something requires leaving your domain, you fall off a cliff. This also creates difficult bridges for collaborators to cross because it will always feel like a struggle to express ideas or communicate goals in specificity. In my own experience, I have not become specialized in certain TouchDesigner toolsets even though they’d be considered in my area of expertise (GLSL I’m looking at you!) because it was better for my career to actually learn a little bit of Notch, Unreal, Unity, Max MSP, etc (emphasis on little). We’ll see why soon…

So what should I actually do???

I recommend being great at 1-3 things. If you find yourself of the mindset of being a specialist, become exceptionally knowledgeable about the one thing you love working with. If you find you want variance in your daily work and your mind bounces around a bit more, you can be great at 2-3 things instead of a super expert of 1 thing. Find the balance that works with your own personality.

Either way, when you’re just starting out, if you focus on doing one thing well and being good at one platform, you’ll get your career off the ground and have many years to learn more softwares. So don’t stress yourself out by feeling inadequate if you’re only good at one thing when you’re applying for your first job.

If you’re already in the middle of your career you can either choose to continue specializing to master one environment or choose a second platform to get good at that is complimentary to what you do already. Self-reflection along the way is key to deciding which path will be more enjoyable in the long-run.

Regardless of which path you choose, you’ll be in a great position to thrive and have a long career if you’re an expert in one package or you’re professionally effective in 2-3! But unfortunately, that’s not the only step that you need to cover, because even being great at 2-3 things is often not enough to deliver large-scale projects.

Learn to communicate

Communication-focused learning isn’t a real technical term, but it’s the best way I’ve found to express this idea. The idea is simple, learn how people talk about their areas of expertise, the terminology they use, the way they might think about problems, and some of the tools they have readily available to them. Sounds simple, I know, but it’s incredibly effective. It’s important whether you end up becoming a specialist or being more of a generalist to be able to communicate with folks in our industry. Large-scale projects quickly involve 5-10 areas of expertise that will demand collaboration.

I have dozens and dozens of examples from my professional career. Quick examples include:

  • Understanding the basic terminology and ideas around computer networking have made it so on big job sites I know how to get my computers talking to each other faster than other partners, because I know how to talk to network engineers, ask for what I need, and understand any potential issues they might have. I can also suggest where I think they might best start their own troubleshooting based on my limited understanding.
  • Understanding the basics of AV diagrams and how to read them mean that I can walk onto any job site and figure out which cables are doing what, where everything is in the rack, what signal extenders are doing, and more. This means that in basically every gig I’ve ever worked on, I’ve been able to troubleshoot AV problems faster than most partners I’ve worked with just because I can collaborate effectively with the AV integrators instead of just barking orders at them.

The big thing to understand here is that I’m in no way qualified to create networking architecture for large projects and frankly, my own WiFi networks are kind of a mess. I also would never be able to create a large-scale project’s AV drawings in the professional manner that an integrator’s engineers would. But understanding just some of the high-level basics of what those other folks do, how their area of expertise works even in basic terms, allows me to work with them extremely effectively.

This is communication-focused learning strategy turns the cliff edges into walkable hills that you can take to travel out of your area of expertise. They’re also the same hills that collaborators can meet you on to discuss both their area of expertise and also your area of expertise.

If you’re interested in doing this, one easy way to get started is to find content creators on YouTube or podcasts that are about that area of expertise. Put those videos on in the background and let them roll along while you’re working and listening. You don’t have to take the tutorials seriously or follow along step-by-step with them. Just listening to them, hearing people talk about a topic, occasionally maybe looking up a term or two will really quickly start to build up your ability to communicate.

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The micro-infrastructure future

I’ve been on record for a few years now talking about the micro-infrastructure future of the immersive industry and so far I’ve only seen more evidence of that becoming a reality. Media technology companies are realizing that instead of having to have every single feature in a single framework or package, it’s actually beneficial for their business models to focus on interoperability with other softwares that compliment their feature set. We can see clear examples of this in almost all media technology pipelines, from Houdini Assets, Touch Engine in Unreal, Notch Blocks in Disguise servers, the instant popularity of NDI and OSC, and more. The ability for different pieces of software to work together is only growing. I can’t remember the last project I’ve worked on where there was strictly one piece of software running the whole thing from start to finish.

Now this can feel daunting because it almost feels like you have to learn how to do everything. As I mentioned in the first few sections, there’s no one that can do everything. One of the best things you can do to thrive in a micro-infrastructure future is being able to collaborate quickly and easily, meaning that you need to know how to communicate with developers and artists using other platforms.

Another byproduct is that generalists can be a lot more effective now than they could 5 or 10 years ago. When I started my career, if you weren’t a wizard at TouchDesigner, you weren’t making anything cool or building complex interactive systems. Your career trajectory was essentially to specialize in single environment so you could take advantage of their good qualities while also being skilled enough to avoid/get around their shortcomings. Now I find that being great at 2 or 3 platforms makes you just as competitive in the job market as being a specialist at only one.

Specialists aren’t going away, so if your brain is wired for specializing and you enjoy that, have fun and be a well-paid specialist. I consider myself more of a specialist than a generalist because I’m an expert at TouchDesigner and outside of that, my development skills are mostly communication-focused and basic-intermediate level. You won’t see me writing JS apps or doing mobile AR work for big clients on my own.

Moral of the story is that apps are becoming more and more compatible and if you’re not taking advantage of these pipelines you’re most likely missing out on great creative and business opportunities. Even if you can’t implement them yourself, being able to communicate about them with collaborators will set you up for success.

Wrap up

Whatever aspect of the immersive industry you’re in, these strategies are guaranteed to help you not only succeed but to thrive. When you’re able to thrive professionally, you’ll equally feel empowered to be creative, so even though these aren’t directly creative strategies, rest assured that they’ll support your creative goals as well. Enjoy!