Spend some time researching British technology start-up Improbable and you’d be forgiven for wondering why this company has earned millions from selling its software to the military.
Improbable is mainly known for ambitious video games where thousands of players can control avatars inside virtual worlds.
Its largest project, for instance, is Scavengers, a science fiction-themed video game which takes place in a futuristic world where the moon has been shattered by an asteroid.
But the same SpatialOS technology which powers Scavengers is also being used by the UK and US armed forces to run training software which could revolutionise the way armed forces prepare for battle.
Improbable has spent years hiring former soldiers as well as game developers to help build both its public gaming business but its secretive defence division.
This wargaming service has attracted some prominent customers. The Ministry of Defence has spent more than £8.3m on Improbable software and announced on Thursday that it had signed another contract with the start-up. The company also signed a $5.8m (£4.4m) contract with the US Department of Defense in 2017.
The technology is appealing to armies around the world because it lets them precisely track the outcome of hundreds of training simulations featuring thousands of real and virtual soldiers.
“SpatialOS can run whole ecosystems of sociopolitical and technical models, enabling highly realistic environments that encourage users to experiment, sharpen their intuitions and thrive in chaotic, ambiguous scenarios,” Improbable writes on the web page for its defence products.
The wargaming technology lets the military combine physical training exercises that involve soldiers running around muddy fields with others playing through simulators and video game controllers. That can all be combined with artificial intelligence-controlled “bots” which can be used to add thousands of allied or enemy forces.
It’s this combination of thousands of soldiers all in one place, perhaps defending a country’s border from an invading army, that requires Improbable’s knowledge of larger multiplayer games like Scavengers.
This “single synthetic environment” (SSE), as the Army calls it, can even be tweaked to add factors like the morale of your troops, social media posts about the battle and the effects of cyber attacks.
“An SSE can represent every domain: land, air, sea, space, and cyber and information. It can also scale as necessary – from a building or city block to an entire geographical region – and represent a level of detail and realism that could only be dreamed of by the wargamers and planners of the past,” wrote Joe Robinson, the head of Improbable’s defence division, in a blog post.
Using Improbable’s wargaming software can give soldiers, and their commanding officers, masses of data beyond the final outcome of the battle.
The simulations can measure how much ammunition and fuel was used, as well as the sentiment of local civilians, the number of soldiers killed, and whether individual objectives like restoring power supplies were accomplished.
Military commanders can then run the same simulation hundreds of times, adjusting things like ammunition supply, whether cyber attacks took place, and troop morale, to work out the best strategies.
Insiders say the development of this wargaming technology is likely to remain a key part of Improbable’s business in the future.
It could become a lucrative source of revenue for a business which warned in its latest accounts published in March that the company “is not yet demonstrating self-sustaining profitability”.
While the company attracts headlines for ambitious new video games using its SpatialOS technology, Improbable will continue quietly hiring former soldiers and Ministry of Defence officials to build a lucrative sideline in wargaming technology.