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Intelligent Machines

Adding Greater Realism to Virtual Worlds

A startup is borrowing techniques used in high-frequency trading to make virtual worlds more realistic.

More complex virtual environments will improve computer games and help with simulations of real-world phenomena.

What new possibilities might open up in video game design—and beyond—when an unlimited number of people can inhabit a truly realistic virtual world simultaneously? This is just one of several questions that Improbable, a company that’s developing a new environment for building virtual worlds of unprecedented scale and complexity, hopes to answer.

screenshot from Worlds Adrift
Concept art for the computer game Worlds Adrift, which is being developed using Improbable’s technology.

The technology could also be used to create real-world simulations that reveal, for instance, the effect that closing a major railway station would have during a disease epidemic, or how a radical change in a government’s housing policy might affect a country’s infrastructure.

Improbable has developed techniques that make it possible to share large amounts of information between multiple servers nearly instantaneously. This will allow many more players to experience a virtual world together than is currently possible. It will also allow more realistic physical interactions to take place within those worlds. Currently, in even the most elaborate virtual worlds, some characters and objects cannot interact because it would require more computational power than is available.

Virtual worlds will no longer feel as if they’re built of “cardboard,” says Improbable’s CEO and cofounder, Herman Narula. Moreover, using Improbable’s technology, objects and entities will be able to remain in the virtual world persistently, even when there are no human players around (currently, most virtual worlds essentially freeze when unoccupied). And actions taken in one corner of a game could have implications later or in another place.

Virtual worlds are already often expansive. The procedurally generated game No Man’s Sky, for example, presents a virtual galaxy that is too large for any human to fully explore within his or her lifetime (see “No Man’s Sky: A Vast Game Created by Algorithms”). But even if we are awed by the sprawl of their geography, the complexity of such worlds is limited by hardware and software limitations.

Herman Narula
Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable.

“Game developers currently take many shortcuts,” says Narula. Improbable’s process essentially offers developers access to “a great deal more power than they’ve ever had before.”

Large-scale online games are usually built using several “shards”—identical instances of the world that no more than about 10,000 people inhabit at any one time before the computational complexity becomes too great. Once a world is “full up,” new players are sent to a different shard. Improbable’s technology is different, says Narula. Theoretically, an unlimited number of players will be able to occupy the same world, and—perhaps most important for the designers hoping to offer those players interesting ways to interact with one another—“everyone will see the same things happening on screen at the same precise moment,” he says.

The London-based company, founded by a group of computer scientists from the University of Cambridge, recently received $20 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm that has invested in startups including Twitter and Oculus VR. This money, according to Narula, will help the company add more engineers to its 50-member team and bulk up its infrastructure. The first games that employ the technology will be launched later this year, he says.

The technology, which already works with popular game- and virtual-world-building tools such as Unity and Unreal, will offer smaller studios and even one-man game makers access to features that typically are available only to vast teams with highly specialized engineers. Improbable plans to sell access to its platform to game developers.

Dean Hall, creator of the hugely popular online game Day Z, in which players fight to survive in a postapocalyptic landscape, is midway through a project that uses Improbable—a process he calls “the most exhilarating thing I have ever done.” For video-game consumers, there will be no need for additional plug-ins or special hardware; the game will run just like any other.

Improbable is also working with researchers at the University of Oxford who hope to model the U.K.’s energy supply all the way from a gas pipe in any given house up to a nationwide view of the whole power grid. “They can’t feasibly do this at the moment,” says Narula. 

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