Herman Narula, co-founder and CEO at Improbable, speaks during a session at the Web Summit in Lisbon.
Henrique Casinhas | Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images
Improbable, a SoftBank-backed startup developing huge virtual worlds, on Friday launched its plans for a network of metaverses that it hopes will one day be capable of hosting thousands of users and compete with platforms from U.S. tech giants such as Meta and Microsoft.
The British company, which was founded in 2012, released a white paper detailing its vision for MSquared, a “network of interoperable Web3 metaverses,” or 3D spaces in which people can live, work and interact with each other virtually. MSquared, which is a separate business entity from Improbable, raised $150 million from investors last year.
Google, Nvidia and Japanese cloud gaming firm Ubitus will serve as technical partners for the launch, Improbable said, providing the “cloud infrastructure, cloud pixel streaming, and video & audio technologies to enable unique, highly qualitative, easily accessible and seamless experiences in the metaverse.”
Behind MSquared is a complex feat of technical engineering with significant computing requirements. The service is intended to be accessible via cloud streaming, meaning you won’t have to download any software to jump into one of its worlds, similar to how movies and TV shows are accessed on Netflix.
What Improbable is launching isn’t a public release of its network of metaverses but rather the developer tools that will enable programmers to build their own metaverses. Developers began accessing its programming language as of Thursday evening, which enabled them to start creating objects in its digital worlds.
“The purpose of the metaverse is to enable new interactive entertainment experiences,” Herman Narula, Improbable’s co-founder and CEO, told CNBC.
Narula cited the video games Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite as examples of metaverses that are already “incredibly successful.”
That’s because they’ve enabled people to take part in mass community and entertainment events, from parties to shared gaming experiences to live music concerts.
Entities will be able to build metaverse experiences using Improbable’s Morpheus technology, which is designed to host mass-scale multiplayer online games, Improbable said.
Improbable was previously able to host 4,500 players in a demonstration in partnership with blockchain firm Yuga Labs.
What Improbable is building
Improbable said there will be four categories of participants that take part in MSquared: metaverse owners, content creators, service providers and users.
Metaverse owners are entities building a metaverse, content creators are the ones producing experiences or objects within a metaverse, service providers are the ones offering storage and computing power and users are those visiting metaverses and consuming content.
The idea is that, eventually, more than 10,000 people would be able to access MSquared. It will initially only be accessible via desktop, however Improbable said the plan is for this to be expanded to mobile devices and consoles by the end of the year.
Narula said MSquared is something that can live independently of Improbable — in other words, if Improbable were to cease to exist, MSquared would continue on uninterrupted.
“This really isn’t about Improbable,” he told CNBC. “We’re hyper involved in it” but over time will become less involved as other partners and developers come in, he said, adding this was necessary so that users, developers and brands “don’t feel locked into working with Improbable.”
“I’m OK with that,” Narula said. “It’s not just that I’m OK with it — it’s an essential facet of making this an economic reality.”
To make MSquared a success, though, the company will need brands to build experiences with its technology. The company hasn’t named any of those brands yet, but said it expects to announce its first partner, a major sports brand, as soon as next week.
Improbable will compete with the likes of Meta and Microsoft, which are building their own metaverses, as well as Roblox and Epic Games.
The London firm, one of Japanese tech investment giant SoftBank’s biggest bets in Britain, was founded by Cambridge computer science students Narula and Rob Whitehead with the ambition of developing large-scale computer simulations and “synthetic environments.”
Improbable’s original business plan was to apply its technology in gaming, and the company had partnerships with numerous studios including Bossa Studios to develop huge, constantly rendering mass multiplayer online games with its SpatialOS technology.
These games struggled to achieve scale, though, and Improbable wound down many of its gaming projects some years ago as a result.
The company later pivoted its focus toward deals with military and defense departments of governments in the U.K. and U.S. This venture similarly struggled, and Improbable recently sold off its defense portfolio.
The tech industry has been betting that virtual and augmented reality will prove to be something of a “paradigm” shift in technology akin to the invention of the internet or the smartphone.
Some are calling it the technology’s “iPhone moment,” in reference to effect Apple’s now ubiquitous handset had on consumers and businesses globally. Apple recently announced its first virtual and augmented reality headset, called the Vision Pro.
Improbable is taking a different route to companies like Meta, which has its Quest headsets and Horizon Worlds digital community software, and Microsoft, which is behind the HoloLens mixed reality products.
For one, you won’t need a headset to jump into an MSquared space, as the software will be desktop-based. And the experience will be a more “decentralized” one, Narula said, adding current metaverse platforms such as Meta and Microsoft’s are “walled gardens.”
Improbable is aiming to make its metaverse a “decentralized” one in which users can exchange goods directly and across different platforms. The company has made a big bet on crypto and blockchain and supports digital assets like nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, which aim to let users prove ownership of virtual items.
Narula suggested that Improbable may launch its own digital token, however he said this hasn’t been decided yet.
That doesn’t mean it won’t have aspects of centralization and Narula explained that some parts of its virtual universe would require centralized controls to prevent people from abusing its systems.
Civil rights campaigners and regulators have raised fears about the metaverse exacerbating some of the ills of the web. Improbable launched its own think tank devoted to discussing what the metaverse should look like and its social and ethical implications earlier this year.