Commentary

SoftBank Takes $502 Million Stake In Improbable Vision For VR

SoftBank Group has taken a big stake in the virtual future with a very tangible $502 million investment in the five-year-old British VR “gaming” company Improbable Worlds Ltd.

SoftBank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son “is making another big bet — this time on a nascent technology that might take years or decades to bloom,” writes Stu Woo for the Wall Street Journal

“The deal fits broadly into Mr. Son’s recent interest in artificial intelligence. He has said that the promise of AI and the Internet of Things — the idea that everyday items such as sneakers and refrigerators will be connected to the Web — has underpinned some of the big and surprising deals that SoftBank has pulled off in the past year,” Woo continues.

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“Improbable uses cloud-based computing to create virtual worlds for use in games as well as large-scale simulations of the real world,” reports Mark Sweney for the Guardian. “The business was co-founded in 2012 by Herman Narula, 29, and Rob Whitehead, 26, who met while studying computer science at Cambridge University, and Peter Lipka, 28, an Imperial College graduate who worked at Goldman Sachs prior to launching Improbable.”

They retain a majority stake in the company and will keep their present responsibilities: Narula is CEO, Whitehead is CTO and Lipka is COO. SoftBank managing director Deep Nishar will join Improbable’s board.

“Its ultimate goal: to create totally immersive, persistent virtual worlds, and in doing so, change how we make decisions,” writesWired’s Oliver Franklin-Wallace. “Or more simply, as Narula often jokes, ‘Basically, we want to build the Matrix.’”

The company’s key innovation is a platform called SpatialOS. “Crucially, if the computation is too much for one Worker to handle, or a server crashes unexpectedly, SpatialOS will dynamically bring up additional servers and distribute the load across them in real time,” explains Franklin-Wallace. “Narula describes this as ‘a giant game of musical chairs’.”

SpatialOS “enables highly detailed modeling of lifelike situations, such as a marine ecosystem,” report Madhumita Murgia and Arash Massoudi for Financial Times. “Although Improbable is currently focused on gaming, it has already garnered customers addressing real-world problems, including academics, local governments such as the city of Cambridge, and private companies…,” they continue.

“Improbable’s promise is that SpatialOS will handle all the heavy lifting in terms of server support and technical infrastructure, allowing even small games studios to build sprawling, ambitious titles,” writes James Vincent for the TheVerge. “The real prize, though, is creating simulations of more complex systems — anything from the infrastructure needs of a large city, to the interactions of different drugs in the human body.” 

It operates over the Google cloud computing platform and has been put to the test in several non-gaming situations.

“Immense Simulations, which is building software to manage fleets of driverless cars, has experimented with SpatialOS to create simulations of an entire city’s road network and traffic patterns. The British government has used Improbable’s software to create a simulation of the whole Internet to look for bottlenecks and points of vulnerability to help better guard against cyberattacks,” reports Jeremy Kahn for Bloomberg Technology.

Narula tells the New York Times’ Michael J. de la Merced that Improbable had always set high ambitions for fund-raising targets, because it needed plenty of cash to build its systems and the “roughly monthlong process included Mr. Narula flying to Tokyo to present Improbable’s technology to Mr. Son.”

This investment is not part of the yet-to-be-launched $100 billion technology-investment Vision Fund, the Japanese Internet and telecommunications company is establishing with a Saudi sovereign-wealth fund, the WSJ’s Woo reports. But the FT says it is expected to offer the stake to Vision Fund after it launches. 

Existing Series A investors Andreessen Horowitz and Horizons Ventures are also making follow-on investments, according to Improbable, “and will continue to offer advice and guidance to Improbable, along with Temasek, the Singapore investment company, which was also involved in the Series A funding.”

In the release announcing the funding, Narula says: “We believe that the next major phase in computing will be the emergence of large-scale virtual worlds which enrich human experience and change how we understand the real world.”

That’s a dose of reality we could certainly use.

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