Meeting the British CEO building The Matrix

By Oliver Smith 20 July 2016

Swallowing the red pill.

I sat down to interview Dedric Reid near the U-bend of a river, just as the sun was setting.

We chatted about Reid’s new game MetaWorld, which is coming out later this year, as we poked a roaring fire with sticks and played a quick game of chess.

It was a fairly typical tech CEO interview, as far as tech interviews go. Apart from the fact that none of it was real.

Enter the world of the weird

Yes, the interview took place in virtual reality. Not only that, but it actually took place inside Reid’s new game MetaWorld.

Want even more weirdness? Reid wasn’t even in Britain. I interviewed the founder just after he woke up in the US.

And don’t think this was an awkward Skype video chat-esque experience either. Reid shook my hand, glanced around nervously when a demo didn’t go quite according to plan and cracked a few jokes as we strolled around that had us both giggling.

The creek we walked around is just one corner of nearly 10,000 square miles of simulated environment being built in MetaWorld, and what’s more crazy is that this is a persistent world.

The future of gaming?

A persistent world means that before we played chess, we had to physically set up the board, placing every individual piece – all because a previous player had gotten carried away with his fire poking stick and upended the table.

When players leave the game, the world remains, the fire keeps burning, waiting for someone else to arrive.

When I first entered MetaWorld I had wondered what the ‘game’ I was supposed to be playing actually was, shooting, running or maybe driving?

By the end of my 30 minutes, Reid was throwing a rock which I was dispatching with a make-shift baseball bat (my fire-poking stick) towards an agreed target.

Together we’d invented a basic type of rounders or cricket, and it was excellent fun.

But Reid isn’t actually the man I’m really here to interview. Herman Narula, the CEO of Improbable, is waiting at a table in the real world next to me, so I reluctantly wave goodbye to Reid and unplug.

Meet Improbable

If MetaWorld is The Matrix, then Herman Narula’s Improbable is the software that powers The Matrix.

Improbable manages and runs huge virtual, persistent worlds at a massive scale and over an unlimited timescale.

It sounds bonkers, but the British company is backed by serious players, including one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capital funds, Andreessen Horowitz, who believe Improbable is poised to change the way we think about virtual reality.

What does that actually mean for you and I?

“Imagine thousands of people in the same world, with millions of persistent entities,” Narula told The Memo“Now imagine that not even being that special, because any developer on our website can do that.”

But Improbable isn’t even really a game company, their software and the virtual worlds it manages is far more powerful than that.

Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable.

Beyond gaming

Improbable is also being harnessed to re-create our actual world inside a computer.

“Our tech is being used to model tumours, economic simulations, modern infrastructure to predict where telcos have coverage, things that you could never imagine doing any other way.”

Already Improbable has been quietly working with the British Government to create a vast simulation of the actual internet, to detect weak points in its underlying infrastructure that could lead to failures.

While Immense Simulations (previously part of Innovate UK), is working with Improbable to build software to coordinate thousands of driverless vehicles that could be deployed by city authorities, like Transport for London, in the future.

Narula says another way of thinking about Improbable is as the antithesis of the artificial intelligence revolution taking place today.

While Google’s DeepMind is learning from real world data to make intelligent predictions about the future, Improbable is recreating entire worlds and using these to model what could happen in the future.

It’s a powerful vision of the future, if it works. That’s because Improbable, and all the games and apps being built on it, are still in beta.

Narula’s British company might one day change our world, but for now it’s still a work-in-progress.