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Will Your Next Upgrade Be a PPU?

Ageia's PhysX processor will bring better physics to computer games, but will you buy it?

Today's top-shelf computer games look pretty stunning, especially when you run them using a PC with a powerful graphics chip and a speedy processor. But you have to admit: Even the best games still don't look completely realistic. From the way explosions appear to the way water flows to the way a character falls down, there's still something less than real about it.

You know what I'm talking about. You pop a bad guy and he falls down, but the way he falls just doesn't look quite right.

The folks at a company named Ageia says the missing element is real-world physics, and they want you to add a third processor--yep, a physics processing unit--to your PC. The PPU would let game developers add more physics processing to their games.

Of course, many of today's games already employ some physics calculations, but the number of objects to which most game developers actually apply it is limited. That's because physics computations are processor intensive, and throwing too many of these calculations at the CPU can slow down the entire game. That's why Ageia created the PhysX processor.

Along with the CPU and GPU, the PPU forms what the company calls "the gaming power triangle." Within this triangle the CPU "thinks and orchestrates," the GPU "renders and displays," and the PPU "moves and interacts."

Right now, to get a PhysX processor you have to buy a system from Alienware, Dell, or Falcon Northwest. But in May Asus and BFG will ship retail PCI boards with the chip. Estimated street price: $300.

The question is, what will the technology do for you and your gaming experience?

Fully Interactive

Have you ever noticed that in most games, damage to a wall or a building is only superficial, and doesn't really affect game play? That's not realistic, says Manju Hedge, cofounder and CEO of Ageia.

"You blow up a building in a game, and it breaks up into 20 chunks and then they disappear," he says. "With a PPU, that building blows up into thousands of pieces, and then they stay."

Other effects the PPU could help create include explosions with damage-causing dust, debris, and shrapnel; weapons that cause varying degrees of damage; grass and trees that sway in the wind; fluids and gases that react to player actions; and characters that move more naturally, with articulated joints. (Check out Ageia's PhysX demos.)

The ability to include these elements does more than add eye candy to the game, Hedge says. It lets game developers create an entirely new level of interaction, and brings a new fidelity to the gaming experience.

"When you interact with an object in the gaming world, it should behave the way you expect it to," he says. "Cloth should flap in the wind, and if you pull it then it should snap or tear. Everything is breakable, and everything is usable."

Ageia says there are currently more than 60 game publishers working on more than 100 games that will support the PhysX processor. Upcoming titles include CellFactor from Artificial Studio; Bet on Soldier: Blood Sport from Take Two Interactive; and Tom Clancey's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter from Ubisoft.

Not the Only Game in Town

Ageia has been working on PhysX for several years, and right now it's the only company with a dedicated processor for physics calculations. But that probably won't be the case for long.

At this year's Game Developers Conference, nVidia announced its own physics plans in conjunction with Havok, maker of the Havok physics engine, which adds CPU-processed physics to current games such as Half Life 2 and F.E.A.R.

As a result of the partnership, Havok's upcoming FX engine will use current-generation (7 series) nVidia GPUs to process physics calculations. The process can work on one GPU, but it will work better on a dual-GPU SLI system in which one chip would handle graphics and a second would handle physics.

ATI has also discussed running physics on its GPUs, and the company has shown some demos, but it hasn't announced any specific products or partnerships.

Ageia's Hedge says he's not concerned that the two graphics giants could steal the thunder from PhysX. Ultimately his dedicated product will do the job better, he says.

"The multiple cores on our chip are designed to do physics," he says. "GPUs are also massively parallel, but they're geared toward graphics. It's inefficient, the way they're talking about doing it."

Then again, most of us already have a graphics card or two, so using the nVidia solution wouldn't cost us anything, and it wouldn't require giving up a PCI slot.

Hedge says, however, that it might not be long before you can have your PhysX without requiring an add-in board, too. He expects the PhysX chip to find its way directly onto enthusiast motherboards sooner rather than later.

In the end, I think gamers will use whichever system their favorite games support. Right now it's too early to tell which will come out on top, but in the short term I expect quite a few serious gamers to pony up the cash for a PhysX card. After all, these are the same people who will happily spend $300 to $600 for a new graphics card (or twice that for two) at the drop of a hat. Now consider the distinct disadvantage they could face in online shootouts if all their buddies have them and they don't, and you just know what they're going to do.

Tom Mainelli didn't like physics in high school, but he's willing to give the science another chance if it means he can blow stuff up more realistically. You can drop him a line.
Will Your Next Upgrade Be a PPU? - Friday, April 14, 2006 -

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