A Simulated Reality is Not as Improbable as You Think
Among the long dyed beards and tight skinny jeans of Silicon Valley, you’ll also find a different way of thinking that isn’t just about waving signs around outside your office because you don’t like what’s going on in politics. There’s a much deeper vein of thought that is best summed up by the words of Elon Musk who has said there is a “1 in billions” chance that we’re not in a simulated reality. Elon Musk believes we are living in a simulation. If you’ve experienced virtual reality using an Oculus or Rift, you’re going to have a much easier time visualizing what he means by this. Then throw in the work Kernel is doing on creating a “read/write” interface for the brain and suddenly you’ll start to “get it”. This begs the question – are we working on creating a simulation right now in today’s society?
“What if it were possible to recreate reality as a simulation? Or to build new worlds?” asks the London-based startup Improbable in the company’s mission statement. It’s a lofty goal, and one that likely would have been met by scoffs at tech conferences just a half decade ago, even with a team of 60 engineers and seed funding from Andreessen Horowitz followed by a $22.09 million Series A round.
Update 07/30/2018: Improbable has doubled its valuation to $2 billion after taking in $50 million from gaming giant NetEase. This most recent round was preceded by a giant funding round from Softbank in May of last year totaling over $500 million, and at a valuation of $1 billion at the time. (Since the latest round values Improbable at $2 billion, Softbank has already doubled their money, at least on paper.) That puts total funding for Improbable at just over $604 million. Proceeds from the most recent round of funding for the startup will be used to establish a stronger foothold in China and support more games on their platform.
Improbable was co-founded by Rob Whitehead and Herman Narula, son of billionaire construction mogul Harpinder Singh Narula, after graduating in computer science at Cambridge. Taking inspiration from the distributed systems that were used to power high-frequency stock trading, Narula aimed to design similar systems for massively multiplayer gaming experiences. To explain his vision, Narula has said that an example would be a Call of Duty experience with “hundreds of thousands of entities in a world with a simulated city with traffic infrastructure.” The computing power required for such a task would be impossible to produce for most gaming studios, especially for a single game.
As the company’s name would suggest, the goals that they have set for themselves are improbable, but not impossible. Simulating entire living, breathing worlds that feel realistic would require infrastructure and collaboration from multiple organizations – but the company seems to be laying the groundwork for exactly that.
Improbable has been able to garner attention and grow their platform by staying lean, developing beneficial strategic partnerships, and ensuring that their platform encourages collaboration. The first games using the Improbable simulation platform have already been released, with some more ambitious games scheduled to be released this year.
Gaming A Natural Fit for Improbable’s Simulations
A platform that is able to simulate believable, persistent universes is one that would naturally lend itself well to video games. As technology has advanced, the size and scope of video games have as well, along with the expectations of those that play them.
There are numerous recent examples that show that simulating worlds (and complete galaxies) on this scale is possible, albeit difficult. Hello Games, the development studio behind the recently released space simulation game, No Man’s Sky, boasted upon release that the game was capable of generating more than 18 quintillion planets for players to explore, a universe so big that it would be seemingly unlikely that two players would ever meet. Another space simulation game, Elite Dangerous, generates more than 100 billion star systems in the Milky Way Galaxy, each with 100+ celestial bodies. Despite their large scale, both games received complaints from critics and users that felt that while the universes are undeniably huge, the depth of the simulations left something to be desired.
Massively multiplayer video games are a natural fit for Improbable’s large-scale simulations. The company has partnered with several game studios, including Bossa Studios (Worlds Adrift), HelloVR (MetaWorld), Spilt Milk Studios (Lazarus), and Entrada Interactive (Rebel Horizons). Their partnership with Bossa Studios may provide the first full-scale look at the capabilities of the Improbable platform when the company releases its ambitious new MMORPG, Worlds Adrift.
World’s Adrift will feature an unending number of floating islands for players to explore, emergent gameplay, and advanced physics and biology for all objects generated. A project of this scale would normally take millions of dollars and years of work from an AAA studio, but using Improbable’s platform has allowed the company to approach their alpha stage with just a year of development and a small core team working on the project. The game is slated for release in 2017.
These partnerships will just be the first wave to make use of Improbable’s platform, with many more to follow. After announcing a partnership with Google, the company launched their new development platform, SpatialOS, for alpha testing.
Google Partnership Provides Legitimacy, Opens New Doors
In December 2016, Improbable simultaneously announced the launch of their first public product, SpatialOS, while also revealing their strategic partnership with Google. Improbable will be using their Google Cloud platform to power the service.
This announcement represented a huge leap forward for Improbable because until that moment, they had just been a small company working on an ambitious product. It would have been easy to dismiss their goals as overly-ambitious, but the Google partnership provides legitimacy, allowing them access to computational power through Google Cloud that matches their ambitions. For now, Improbable’s deal with Google does not involve financing.
SpatialOS focuses primarily on gaming for now, but does offer simulation features that could be useful to developers in many industries. The alpha release of SpatialOS allows developers to build, iterate, and test virtual environments. SpatialOS is also compatible with virtual reality devices.
Traditionally, gaming development platforms would still require studios to manage their own servers, but this is not the case with SpatialOS. SpatialOS allows developers to develop on the SpatialOS platform, then use Google Cloud to send information and handle all computations. The distributed nature of the platform’s architecture makes it particularly adept at generating and simulating large tasks, allowing developers to focus on graphics, physics, and other game mechanics through custom designed “worker programs” that add functionality to the platform.
In short, the company has stated that their platform handles the heavy lifting of a large-scale simulated reality, freeing up developers to concentrate on other areas of their game.
“We set out to build SpatialOS because we saw what developers wanted to do, but were held back from achieving,” said Improbable CEO Herman Narula.
Improbable’s Ambitions Go Far Beyond Gaming
While gaming might present an excellent entry point for Improbable’s simulation platform, the company has made it clear that their ambitions are much larger. Improbable’s platform is designed to handle all types of simulations at a massive scale.
The company hopes that their platform could find its footing in other industries, being used for tasks like simulating worldwide economics models, running simulations to prepare for infectious disease outbreaks, or simulating the human body to gain a deeper understanding of diseases and their treatments. There have already been several interesting simulations built using the improbable platform, including simulations of London’s telecom networks, modelling autonomous vehicle fleets, and simulating internet architecture.
Improbable’s platform is built for collaboration with developers, who can input their own “worker programs” onto the platform, containing all of the components that the simulation will require. One of the benefits of these “worker programs” is that when added to Improbable’s library, they can be used for other projects as well. In the context of video games, this means that certain game mechanics, like considerations when simulating worlds and injecting realistic physics into that world, can be instantly implemented into new games, reducing development time. These same concepts would be extremely useful for non-gaming simulations as well.
That is the real beauty of Improbable and SpatialOS – the powerful foundation they have built can be custom tailored to be used for any simulation by developers and studios, without the need for server management or worrying about securing the computing power to run it.
Improbable’s innovative simulation platform, SpatialOS, is seeing its first usage, with several interesting games that utilize the software already released or scheduled for release in 2017. Their partnerships with development studios and Google have catapulted the company to the forefront of gaming simulation and simulated reality building, which provides a natural path to growth for the company. Per their mission statement, Improbable’s team has much larger long-term ambitions in their sights. Once they’ve created a simulated reality that we can enter which is indistinguishable from our current reality, we’ll know Elon Musk has been right all along.
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