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Hardware Acceleration for Physics

This is potentially very cool:

[G]ame creators haven't taken the time to calculate the physics that govern the behavior of objects such as falling bricks. [Manju] Hegde, CEO of Mountain View, Calif., startup Ageia, wants to make it easy for them to do that with a chip for the personal computer that specializes in physics calculations.

Dubbed PhysX, the chip will enable things like gelatinous creatures whose bodies shift shape like a liquid, crumpling fenders in car crashes, massive explosions with 10,000 pieces of debris, clothing that hangs realistically, and lava or blood that flows like the real thing...

Ageia has $38 million in venture capital from firms such as Apex Partners and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing. It has commitments for $30 million more from other investors.

One reason Ageia has garnered such support is its chip could tip the scales in the PC's battle with game consoles.

The PC gaming community is about to be overshadowed by another set of new consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Those machines will have plenty of extra processing power to handle better physics.

The consoles will be able to calculate the interaction of moving objects and determine what the graphics chip needs to display on the screen at any instant. And they may have enough power to imbue the game environment with physical attributes, so that the grass sways when the wind blows.

Hegde says a PC with a physics chip could match the consoles...

But do gamers really want to buy an add-on card just to improve the realism in their games? Ageia's president, Curtis Davis, argues that they will when they realize physics is key to situations where they try to do something in a game and the environment doesn't respond. If you crash a plane into some trees and none fall, it destroys the fantasy...

But Hegde said Ageia's first physics chip will be akin to network processors, with many processors operating in parallel. As such, he says the chip will be more powerful at specific physics tasks than a microprocessor.

Hegde believes developers will make use of the physics chip because it results in better games.

Ageia plans to have add-on boards with its chip out by Christmas. And it hopes at least five games will exploit its hardware physics by the time the add-on cards go on sale.

So, first, a reality check: the odds of widespread developer support for a physics accelerator card are low, to say the least. To take advantage of it, games would have to be rewritten to feature more opportunities for higher-quality physics, and the game business is tough enough as it is without spending money implementing features for less than one percent of the market.

Having said that, could this have a future in next-generation consoles? Given that Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony are all launching next-gen consoles in the next few weeks, this is a good time for Ageia to be coming out. By the time they're in the market, can show off what they're capable of, and have their prices down -- say, by early next year -- the console makers could be kicking off their next-next-generation early design efforts. Sony wouldn't use something like this; I'm sure they'd see the Cell as their solution to this sort of thing (which it may well be). But Microsoft? Nintendo? Could be.

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