virtual-reality

Improbable World’s Limited, a UK start-up, has managed to secure a $502 billion investment – a deal that may eventually catapult the British company into the premier league of the world’s biggest techs, as well as enable virtual reality to pretty much change everything. SoftBank is the lead investor.

Start-ups go from nothing to become one of the world’s biggest companies. It happened with Amazon, it happened with Facebook and Google/Alphabet – actually it didn’t take so long at Microsoft and Apple. There is much these companies have in common, but among them is that they are all American.

But where might the next tech to join that most exulted list come from? Where in the world? And what will it do? Could some kind of virtual reality related technology create this company? Could London be the home to the next great tech? Take a look at Improbable, and the answer to both those questions is yes – possibly, and most certainly not improbably.

Improbable appears to exemplify millennial thinking – it’s a company that focuses on collaboration. It is developing a platform – SpatialOS – for which open source is a common theme – that will provide developers with the means to, well to pretty much do anything – virtually speaking.

At the moment, the platform supports multi player video games set in virtual reality. SpatialOS “gives you the power to seamlessly stitch together multiple servers and game engines like Unreal and Unity to power massive, persistent worlds with more players than ever before,” says the company on its web site.

But the ambition reaches even further than that. “Our goal is to build a massive scale infrastructure to redefine how we work on a massive scale,” says Herman Narula, CEO and co-founder.

The company wants to create the foundations for other developers to create simulations of just about anything. Sure, that means creating new worlds in virtual space, but it also means developing technology to provide greater understanding of disease, simulate cities, creating efficiencies in the way cities function and solve complex problems.

And while the words artificial and reality get bandied about more and more often, while the likes of Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet and Apple pour hundreds of million into AI, Narula talks about something else which he sees as just as important – recreating reality. “AI get all the press,” he once said, but “this idea of recreating reality is going to become something in the public consciousness that’s as important, as significant as artificial intelligence.”

The Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, famously argued that we may already live in a simulation – in a Matrix. Whether we do or not is something we may never know, but Improbable is the kind of company that may create the option for us to move, all of us, into a new a virtual reality.

But setting aside the idea of living in a matrix, virtual reality has the potential to be so much more than critics realise. There has been a glut of reports and articles suggesting that virtual reality is overhyped, going nowhere – such views are steeped in ignorance, show a total lack of imagination and fail to grasp that virtual reality is evolving technology, and which can offer so many benefits that – well the mind boggles.

As for SoftBank – you may recall, the Japanese company that bought ARM last year is launching a $100 billion tech investment fund – to be backed by, among others, the Saudi Arabian government and Alphabet. The fund – Vision – will be based in London. But it isn’t up and running yet, the investment in Improbable does not come via this fund.

But what is exciting is that the investors. who, in addition to SoftBank include earlier investors in the company – Andreessen Horowitz, Horizon Ventures and Temasek Holdings – only get a minority stake for their money. Nerula, and his co-founder Rob Whitehead, are in this for the long run. That is why the company may yet rival one of the Silicon Valley giants – unlike so many promising British start-ups, it is not selling out just as its technology starts to look interesting.

Presumably, with this investment, it won’t have to.

The company released a statement saying: “We think that the games of today are an incredibly exciting medium, but also that they will evolve into massive worlds and offer meaningful experiences for a much broader segment of society than previously imagined. It’s our goal to solve the critical technical problems and unlock that future. Now we have the resources to fully realise that vision over the long term with our growing ecosystem of partners. This investment further cements our long-term commitment to working with the games industry to create the experiences of tomorrow.”

In fact, Improbable was born in Cambridge – that is where Whitehead and Nerula met. This is surely no coincidence. Cambridge is, or was, the home of Sinclair, Acorn and ARM. Some of the great computer hardware and software engineers in the world live there.

But before we leave this good news story here are some gripes.

Herman Narula, who was born and brought up in India before moving to the UK, comes from a wealthy family. The company’s initial funding – £1.2 million – came from friends and family. He says that without those links the company may never have got up and running. What a damning indictment that is of the UK investment scene – how many other potential unicorns are there that cannot get the initial funding they need because they don’t have the contacts?

And the second gripe is on a similar theme – SoftBank is Japanese, Horizon Ventures is based in Hong Kong, Temasek Holdings is owned by the Singapore state.

Improbable is based in London, the home of the world’s leading financial centre, and yet has to get funding from just about anywhere but the UK. Wake up guys, or the UK will lose its chance to compete in new technologies that are set to change the world.