SpatialOS: What If We Had A Digital City?

In this video from Slush 2015 the CEO of tech company Improbable, Herman Narula, introduces the company’s ground breaking SpatialOS by asking the question ‘What if we had a digital city?’  Its value is the possibility it provides for seeing into the future of the city and answering the types of questions that start ‘What if?’ In this way the concerns motivating the creation of SpatialOS coincide with those of my own PhD in Near Real Time Urban Data Spaces here at CASA.

In his presentation Narula considers the impact that the introduction of self-driving autonomous vehicles might have on our cities. We might expect them to change patterns of usage on transport networks by making journeys more efficient, and this could have further implications for land uses associated with related phenomena such as parking. This in turn suggests an impact on economic activity which, in turn, could have implications for transport related crime and policing. We can guess what the impacts might be but what will this really look like?

The motivation behind SpatialOS is the ability to understand the consequences of complexity. In complex adaptive systems such as cities the interactions between different components of the system are non-linear. Contrasted with the relationships in linear systems where effects will be proportional to and more directly related to their causes, the relationships in non-linear systems will be disproportionate, indirect and, therefore, extremely difficult to predict.

While large amounts of data about cities can now be gathered in near real time for the purpose of up to the minute analysis, this does not provide any guarantee that the currently observed patterns of behavior will persist into the future. This limits our ability to answer questions of the kind ‘What If?’ What if we add a new station to the tube network? What if we route the trains differently? What if we build a new district? What will the impact of a new technology be? SpatialOS offers to help answer these questions by enabling us to digitally recreate and simulate the entire system.

The challenge Narula identifies is that of achieving a form of ‘Strong Simulation’ which leverages sufficient computational power that is fully dedicated to the process of simulation. This is contrasted with ‘Weak Simulation’ which Narula characterised in a previous presentation as the necessity of sharing computation between simulation and other processes such as rendering. With SpatialOS Strong Simulation is achieved through the distribution of computational load across servers in the cloud.

This is potentially ground breaking technology for data scientists but also has amazing potential for the creation of virtual environments and video gaming. The presentation ends with a presentation from Bossa Studios whose game Worlds Adrift uses SpatialOS to provide a massive mutliplayer online gaming environment.

What makes the game special is the way in which each of the individual objects in the game environment are indefinitely persistent and affected by physics in real time. Already simulating over four million objects at the current stage of development the potential of SpatialOS for both gaming and scientific simulation is massive!



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