The ‘Improbable’ rise of VR

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The news that UK-based virtual reality technology developer Improbable had raised $502m of Series B funding from Japanese-based investment giant SoftBank certainly caused a stir in mid-May.

The funds will go into the further development of Improbable’s own tech, including the company’s proprietary SpatialOS distributed operating system.

Improbable uses cloud-based distributed computing to enable the creation of virtual worlds for use in games and massive-scale simulations of the real world and chief executive Herman Narula said the company believed it has already gone some way to building the infrastructure to support the next great leap in computing.

 “We believe that the next major phase will be the emergence of large-scale virtual worlds which enrich human experience and change how we understand the real world,” he said.

“At Improbable we are working towards a future in which participatory virtual worlds and simulations of unimaginable scale become ubiquitous,” he added. “We think this is potentially as exciting and important a technical development as work on AI or the Internet of Things.”

The company sees opportunities for using the technology in areas such as telecoms and government organisations to explore the potential for building massive, detailed simulations to drive better decisions using real-world data.

But it is in the world of gaming that Improbable is viewing the immediate gains that can be made from pressing ahead with this larger investment – one that values the company at over $1bn.

“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,” said Narula. “It’s our goal to solve the critical technical problems and unlock that future.”

Improbable aren’t alone in exploring the VR avenues within gaming. Publisher Valve – the name behind such popular game franchises as Half-Life as well as leading eSports titles such as CS:GO and Dota 2 – has been involved for a couple of year with technology company HTC in developing its Vive VR system. Though it remains a niche product, it is notable that according to reports in the technology press last year at least one third of valve’s staff are working on VR projects.

This news clearly indicates that progression in relation to VR (and also augmented reality or AR) is underway at some of the biggest names in the tech world. Indeed, although Facebook announced at the start of May it was closing the Oculus Story Studio unit – which had been producing well-received animated films – the company was keen to stress that those working at the unit were to be re-assigned elsewhere within the Oculus organisation.

At the Facebook tech developer conference earlier this year, the company laid stress on its moves in terms of VR social with its news Facebook Spaces virtual reality app that will let users ‘meet up’ with avatars of friends via an Oculus headset.

Meanwhile, it’s plans in AR are equally as ambitious. The new augmented reality tools will let users place virtual objects into a real-world view through their phones. The company is also planning AR games that incorporate real-world objects thanks to a technology called ‘slam’ (simultaneous localization and mapping) that lays a 3D grid over a table in front of the user, turning it into a game board.

Given the potentialities, the gambling sector is unsurprisingly eyeing developments in VR and AR with heightened interest. Among the first to have dipped a toe in the area is Slotsmillion, run by Alea Gaming, which already has a VR casino up and running.

However, speaking to GamCrowd chief executive Alexander Tomic is wary of declaring that VR gambling is anywhere near the popular just yet. “The hunger for virtual reality continues to grow and grow, but we are going to need to see a reduction in price point before the technology truly enters the mainstream,” he says.

Pointing to a recent survey undertaken by the company, he adds that the findings show that 90 percent of the UK audience were at least aware of the immersive experience offered by VR. However, although 80 per cent of those aged between 18-34 are interested in VR, only half of them have experienced it.

“Our research suggests millennials are willing to spend up to £134 on equipment for VR,” Tomic adds. “But with the top of the range headsets costing around £500, there is still a way to go before all those with an interest in VR are able to indulge.”

Tomic suggests that though the nascent VR industry is predicting in excess of 170 million people adopting VR by 2018, he remains sceptical. “It’s hard to see such a dramatic rise in users unless prices are slashed dramatically in the next 12 months,” he says.

There is understandably more enthusiasm from the backers of Improbable. Managing director of Softbank, Deep Nishar, said about Improbable that it is involved in exploring the “next critical frontier in computing.”

“Improbable is building breakthrough technologies that are becoming vital and valuable platforms for the global gaming industry,” he said. “Beyond gaming, this new form of simulation on a massive scale has the potential to help us make better decisions about the world we live in. Improbable’s technology will help us explore disease, improve cities, understand economies and solve complex problems on a previously unimaginable scale.”

For the techies out there, there was also an invitation from Improbable that should perhaps be taken up. The company has released a software development kit (SDK) available from spatialos.improbable.io which enables anyone to see how easy it is to build game worlds using standard tools and engines and to join the growing VR developer community.