Interview: Rob Whitehead, Improbable
Virtual simulation start-up Improbable made headlines globally in May when it raised $500 million (£390m) in a funding round led by Japan’s SoftBank. Move Commercial caught up with Liverpool-born co-founder and chief technology officer, Rob Whitehead to find out more about this remarkable investment which has valued the firm at over $1 billion
Words by Lawrence Saunders
As Rob Whitehead was growing up, the idea that he could one day make a living out of computer games wasn’t something he gave much thought to – that was until he started making thousands of dollars on one of them whilst still in school.
Fascinated by technology from an early age, Whitehead began picking up snippets of HTML and code at the age of 11, but it wasn’t until he downloaded the popular online game ‘Second Life’ that he truly learnt the language of computers.
‘Second Life’, which launched in 2003, is an entirely online virtual world where users create representations of themselves, known as avatars, and interact with places, objects and other users.
Players can explore the vast alternative world and engage in a range of activities but for Whitehead, the ability to build, create, and ultimately sell items on the game was the real draw.
He became a dab hand at building weapons to order for other users in the game, making real money in the process – a total figure Whitehead puts in the low $10,000s.
“Making things in ‘Second Life’ made me realise that it was something I wanted to do moving forward in my life, but I guess I never knew that it could be my fulltime job,” says Whitehead.
“When you’re a kid you always think you’ll have to get a proper job eventually but now it’s strange looking back because all the things I learnt in ‘Second Life’, and the coding, is super relevant to what we’re building at Improbable.”
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After graduating from Cambridge with a first class degree in Computer Science in 2012, Whitehead was offered what he calls a “decent” job at a high profile hedge fund in the City of London.
Despite the patent appeal of the proposal, he turned it down and instead decided to pursue his university friend’s “crazy idea for a computer game”.
“The idea was for a computer game were the entire world is alive,” explains Whitehead.
“A lot of games are really fake. For example in ‘Grand Theft Auto’ when you park a car, walk away and then come back the car will have disappeared because the game world is not actually alive.
“Most computer games today are about pretending to make a world.
“We wanted to make a game that was really alive, where the trees actually grew and there was an actual ecology of animals – all with tens of thousands of players in the same space.”
That university friend with the crazy idea was Herman Narula, who Whitehead met during a dissertation review and soon bonded with over a mutual interest in multiplayer games and virtual worlds.
Straight after graduation Whitehead moved into a converted barn next to Narula’s family home in North London and Improbable was born.
“There was no celebration when the investment was announced. This is just someone putting a bet on us and we haven’t won the race yet.”
For their ambitious game to become a reality, the pair knew they’d have to create some new tech but, during the process of doing so, discovered that their skills in fact lay in creating technology rather than games.
“We went ahead to make the tech needed to build our game and we realised we weren’t actually that good at making games but good at making technology, and that’s when we started moving towards what we’re doing now,” says Whitehead.
The technology Whitehead helped create was SpatialOS. In layman’s terms, SpatialOS is a game engine made out of hundreds of game engines all stuck together.
Using hundreds of cloud-based computers, each running a single game engine, SpatialOS can create a cluster of conventional game engines that overlap together to create a huge, continuous world.
“You can imagine it like a patchwork quilt,” explains Whitehead.
“Imagine each one of those computers is running a small part of the game – almost like an area of the world.
“This isn’t a strictly new idea, it has been done before. The unique part of our idea was to use normal game engines.
“Normally people would build all of this from scratch but what we did was take existing game engines like Unity and Unreal, which games developers already knew and could use easily.”
In the week preceding our interview, Whitehead was busy overseeing the launch of ‘Worlds Adrift’, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) adventure game developed in partnership with Bossa Studios using the SpatialOS framework.
The game, which stems from what Whitehead calls a “ridiculous” idea based around a vast open world of floating islands and flying ships, has a strong emphasis on physics with everything that moves and everything the player touches having its own particular weight.
“Because we’ve made technology which can make games more like the real world, we’ve actually made technology which is really good at simulating the real world as well,” says Whitehead.
“If you’re able to simulate an entire city’s worth of traffic in a game then you can use that to simulate real cities.
“[Our investor] has a vision for what the world is going to be like in 300 years and he sees SpatialOS as an important technology in this vision.”
“Similarly, if you can make a simulation of the real world as complex and realistic as the real world, people might use that place to socialise, make friends and even as a place to work in rather than working in this world.
“I know this is starting to sound a little crazy, a bit like ‘The Matrix’, but that is kind of what the end vision of this is.”
Fortunately for Improbable, one person who didn’t find the idea crazy at all was Masayoshi Son, CEO of Japanese multinational telecommunications and internet corporation SoftBank.
In fact, Son was so impressed by what Improbable was doing that he signed off on an investment package which classified the company as a ‘unicorn’ (any start-up valued at more than $1bn).
Whitehead and Narula retain a controlling stake in the business following the deal – something Whitehead says was vital.
“We’re still a British company which controls its own destiny.
“Often when investors come in they will try and steer you in a certain direction but this investment has given us the independence to do what we think we need to do.
“Son has a vision for what the world is going to be like in 300 years and he sees SpatialOS as an important technology in this vision.”
Although Whitehead is unable to go into specifics over exactly what the huge investment will be used for, he does say the capital will allow Improbable to focus on its long-term vision rather than worry about the short-term financial status of the business.
The massive vote of confidence and funding doesn’t mean Whitehead has any plans to take his foot off the gas yet though.
“There was no celebration or party when the investment was announced,” he says.
“This is just someone putting a bet on us and we haven’t won the race yet.
“It’s good that there are people in the world who really support what we’re trying to do but we’ve got a long journey ahead of us.”