Improbable: The British tech startup with massive ambition

Just because you’re a tech startup doesn’t mean you have to think small. Instead, London-based tech company, Improbable, has delivered its “Hello, World!” moment on a galactic scale – it has announced SpatialOS, a distributed operating system capable of powering big data simulations and epic gaming worlds alike. 

“The company gained attention earlier this year when it received $20 million in funding.”

The company gained attention earlier this year when it received $20 million in funding from US venture capital firm, Andreesen Horowitz, but only now has it made clear exactly what it’s been building, unveiling its SpatialOS at the Slush conference in Helsinki today.

It’s not really an operating system, so much as a software layer running on distributed hardware that lets you build scalable data simulations and worlds that are persistent. If this sounds complex, it’s because it is. In gaming parlance, the concept is best explained in the context of massively multiplayer worlds – up until now, the available technology has placed hard limits on how many players can co-exist in a virtual world at any one time. SpatialOS is designed to change all that.

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None of this is easy, of course, and not only because of the huge scale, but because that scale is on “one big calculation, one big world, one big simulation,” founder and CEO Herman Narula said – doing that in real-time for everyone is “fiendishly hard.”

Cloud computing scales easily, Narula explained on the sidelines of Slush, comparing it to sorting a physical pile of mail. “I just take half the mail stack and give it to you, and we both organise it,” he told me. “Scaling up a simulation is much messier. Just like in this room, we can’t easily split up your part of the computation from my part of the computation – we’re interacting with each other. SpatialOS works like a coordination fabric, and allows the whole thing to work.”

What’s the point?

Good question. SpatialOS could, for instance, let us build digital sandboxes to simulate the complex impact of driverless cars on a city, or build huge worlds to explore in virtual reality, or let a small development company build an epic MMO game with a landscape the size of Wales that evolves whether you’re in it or not.

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That game is Bossa Studios’ World’s Adrift, the first product to use Improbable’s SpatialOS technology. “In World’s Adrift, the ecology continues even when you’re not around,” said Narula. “You could see a burning ship on the horizon, and that could be something a player just pushed forward before he died. And it’s been floating for a week, and now you encounter this ghost vessel.”

“That gives us the serendipity and meaning that we like in the real world,” he said.

Narula also suggested it could help build spaces for virtual reality. “VR is a portal that takes you to another world, but to what kind of world,” he asked. “Unless you can solve the problem of simulated spaces, you’re going to be going to a very limited and lonely world, that’s very pretty but where there is little for us to be able to interact with and little for us to be able to do.” The “strong” simulation from Improbable would give a world support for billions of real time objects, he said.

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Asking “what if”

As lovely as the tech makes digital worlds look, Improbable’s tech isn’t just a way to build insanely complicated games.

We have a lot of data. Big data. Look at cities: we know where buses go, where cars get stuck in traffic, and so on. But that doesn’t help us build a model for what happens if driverless cars hit the roads, or when Uber arrives in a city – we don’t have data for disruptive technologies. “Data only shows us patterns from the past,” Narula said. “How do we ask ‘what if’ questions about the future?”

At the moment, we’d do that with narrow simulations of specific things, like modelling traffic in a specific junction or a virus spreading through a crowd. Narula is adamant that we need to think bigger if we’re really to understand what the data is telling us. “If you want to put it all together… why that’s really important is little changes in one area propagate everywhere, so understanding complex issues really requires simulation”.

Spatial skills

Unsurprisingly, working in SpatialOS will require special skills. Games can still be built with the Unity engine, though they’ll also need to be able to work with Scala, the native SpatialOS language. However, Narula said the World’s Adrift team needed “very little” training. From there, it’s simply “pushed” out onto Improbable’s infrastructure, and congratulations, you’re a maker of worlds.

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And if you’re an academic testing the effects of adding a bike lane to a street, you can use your existing models and tools. “If you have a traffic simulator that can only do one junction, you can plug it into SpatialOS and it will understand how to use that and its logic to do it across another city and to then interconnect that with other things.”

The technology is still “early days” and there’s no final release date, though right now you can sign up for an invite to the early user package.  

“Bossa studios is a small independent studio – they built an MMO with 10, maybe 12 people.”

Narula wouldn’t reveal pricing, but you only pay for usage – if no one is in your world, there’s no cost – and he suggested Bossa’s ability to build Worlds Adrift shows it’s affordable. “What I would say is that Bossa studios is a small independent studio – they built an MMO with 10, maybe 12 people. So you can imagine from that perspective that cost wise it’s got to make sense. And if it makes sense for them, at that level, that’s a huge group of people to whom it’s viable.”

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor players will have already come across Speech Graphics, another company changing how we experience virtual worlds.

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