The UK-based tech company ironically called “Improbable” officially decided to shutter the company working on its strange, opaque “military metaverse.” It’s another blow to the folks who once talked up the promise of shared virtual worlds technology, especially because somebody thought a solid use case for a metaverse was supporting the military industrial complex.
Breaking Defense first reported Monday that Improbable’s U.S.-based subsidiary Improbable U.S. Defense & National Security was closing its doors. Last week, the company’s former president and general manager Caitlin Dohrman announced she joined software company Tangram Flex as CEO, but even then it wasn’t exactly clear what happened with Improbable’s military contract arm. Finally, over the weekend, Dohrman wrote in a LinkedIn post that Improbable had decided to “refocus on its commercial metaverse business” after seeing “challenging macroeconomic conditions.”
She added “Our government customers and industry partners are equally disappointed that the highly unique and transformative synthetic environment solutions we were delivering will no longer be available. This decision affects not only our employees, but the U.S. national security community as well.”
So just what was this so-called military metaverse? The company’s site mentions it was building “cutting-edge” national security-focused software, but it offers nothing but a list of corporate jargon. It’s hard to find actual examples of what this tech was though Improbable helped sponsor Politico’s 2022 Defense Summit in Washington, and so the company ended up being one of the day’s big executive sit-downs. The company included a promo vid for its technology with Politico’s official coverage. The video showed their program called “Skyral” was a kind of metaverse environment looking to redefine how the national security community could “transform how it plans, trains and operates.” Brief video of Skyral featured an awkwardly hunched-over avatar soldier in military gear stumbling around a low-resolution training facility and first-person display of a soldier holding a rifle of some kind.
Originally, Improbable’s founders had a vision to create military simulators akin to the popular Arma series, though on a much larger scale, according to an interview with Improbable co-founder Herman Narula by the Financial Times. The company thought it would be able to license its virtual world tech to clients, and somewhere along the line decided it could work directly with militaries in the U.S. and UK.
In an email statement to Gizmodo, Improbable spokesperson Marine Boulot wrote the company closed its U.S. office due to “macroeconomic conditions” to instead “focus on profitable areas” of its business. The umbrella company Improbable still apparently wants to use its “metaverse” tech for the defense sector by creating “synthetic environments of huge scale and complexity” and “real life simulations.” Boulot also told us that their technology, beyond the commercial activity, is currently in operational use on contracts with the UK Minister of Defense.
Dorhman sat down with Politico exec Heidi Sommer just this past November and offered some very canned answers to some very simple questions. She said their tech could be used to “test” the nations’ military capabilities and “train” troops. She said Skyral had tools for “large-scale, distributed simulation.” She said Improbable took 12 weeks to create a virtual training demo the company showed to nine “partners,” though it’s unclear which U.S. agencies or military organizations were interested in this metaverse tech.
Improbable had originally raised $500 million from tech investment firm SoftBank back in 2017 during its initial startup rounds. The company then expanded to use its technology to create “metaverses,” which included its U.S. based national security-focused arm. Unfortunately, developers using the company’s tech to build games found its SpatialOS engine to be hard to use, and the company suffered under multiple game cancellations, according to a past FT report. Improbable previously sold two game studios it owned last year, and Boulot told Gizmodo that was part of their strategy, as they were not developing content that could be relevant to the metaverse projects.
Talk of major financial losses hasn’t stopped venture capital from flooding in. Back in September, The UK umbrella company closed on $100 million in funding by blockchain company Elrond—yes, named after the character from Lord of the Rings (and just for a minute, picture Tolkien’s Lord of Rivendell funding the global military industrial complex, and come back to reading after you’ve had time to process).
It’s hard to take any talk of a “metaverse” seriously. International law enforcement agency Interpol rolled out its own “metaverse” that proved nothing more than a PR stunt. The European Union created another shared environment full of weird balloon animal creatures but nobody came to their release party. Even Meta, the company that’s been most bullish on the metaverse concept, can’t escape jokes and accusations that their technology is a decade behind the times.
Well, Improbable still has some other projects on the docket, including its work with Yuga Labs, AKA the people behind the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT project, and its upcoming metaverse called “Otherside.” Though the company released a demo this year, the Yuga Labs missed its original planned release date for this year and now expects to launch in 2023. Narula previously told FT that Otherside was supposed to be a major moneymaker for Improbable, though trading volume for NFTs has sunk drastically since 2021 highs. Prices for Yuga Lab’s NFTs have also plummeted as of late, so that won’t likely help the flagging metaverse project.
Updated 12/13/2022 at 4:15 p.m. ET: a previous version of this story said Improbable “never got its tech off the ground” and has since been updated with additional context from Improbable.