British startup and virtual reality firm Improbable has become the latest UK tech startup to be valued at $1 billion, after a funding round of over $500 million, led by Japanese telecom firm SoftBank. According to the Financial Times (subscription required), this is the largest ever venture capital investment in a UK company.
Improbable's aims are nothing if not ambitious. The company aims to enable "virtual worlds of unprecedented scale and complexity." In practice, this means creating worlds that thousands of users inhabit at any one time, using VR as the means to get there. The consumer use is mostly for vast video game worlds; Wired reports the company is working on a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game with flying pirate ships. However, Improbable also creates hugely complex virtual worlds for industry, and counts both the UK and US defense departments among its clients.
Improbable creates these virtual worlds by using its in-house operating system, SpatialOS. This stitches together many servers and game engines to power one single world, rather than having the world powered by a single server or engine, meaning developers and players are restrained by the extent of that server's capabilities. Multiple engines -- such as Unity and Unreal -- are available in a single world, and the OS is tool-agnostic. It's also free to try and develop on.
This could be used by researchers to examine life in a city, or a simulation of an invasion, letting senior defense officers see what their country's weaknesses are and then act on them accordingly. Improbable's ultimate aim is to create an immersive world on an unheard-of scale, where you don't realize you're in a simulation.
Co-founder and CEO Herman Narula told a select group of business leaders, ministers and investors at a small, two-day event in California, "We're in a place today where it is actually possible to create artificial realities. Not in some abstract sense, but genuine, living, breathing re-creations of this one, powered by technology, that allow people to have totally new experiences."
However, despite these lofty goals and impressive technology, the company is still losing money, with relatively low revenues for a company of its size. It received $20 million in funding from US-based venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in 2015, using it to expand the business. While the SoftBank funding doesn't give it control of Improbable --it is still independent -- backers hope the still-young startup will use this money to start generating revenue and, eventually, profit.
The London-based startup, which was only founded in 2012, now joins an elite number of startups valued at $1 billion. That group gets even smaller when limited to British firms. While the UK technology industry hasn't yet scaled the heights that companies in the US have, maybe Improbable will get there first. Question is, will that be in our world or theirs?