Ageia announces PhysX processing unit

New hardware dedicated to physics computations to bring new level of realism to games.

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Your games are about to get a lot more interactive. Fabless semiconductor company Ageia has today announced PhysX, the world's first physics processing unit. The PhysX chip is a dedicated physics processing engine designed to coexist with the CPU and the GPU in existing desktop systems.

When you think of cutting-edge physics in today's games, you think rag-doll character effects, which allow character corpses to flop around in a realistic manner, and unique weapons like the gravity gun in Half-Life 2, which lets players pick up objects and toss them around. Gamers may marvel over current physics effects, but Ageia cofounder and CEO Manju Hegde sees only "mundane" game environments full of limitations.

A table will move if you shoot a chair into it, but other parts of the game environment, such as the wall or floor, won't show any deformation damage. Many games simulate damage with graphical decals such as a bullet-hole graphic, but the actual shape of the object acted upon doesn't change. If you view the bullet-hole texture from a sideways angle, you can almost always tell that the image is "painted on" instead of being a real indentation. Ageia aims to "break down" those walls by giving PCs the physics processing power 100 times more powerful than today's modern CPUs. According to Hegde, "If there's a wall, and you have a gun, you should be able to blow [the wall] up."

Current games running on PC systems with high-end desktop processors, such as the Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon 64, can support roughly 30 to 40 "active bodies," or physical objects that can interact with each other in-game. This limitation doesn't give developers much to work with in terms of physics simulation. Simulating a building blowing up in real time is impossible with such a small number of fragments, but increase the active body count to 32,000 or 40,000, which the Ageia PhysX PPU can handle, and then you'll have an explosion to talk about.

The increased object count and physics processing power let game designers add more granularity to in-game elements. Crushed car doors can show the same bends and breaks when viewed from any angle. Clothing can drape and move naturally, and a character's hair can whip around in a strong breeze. Volumetric fluids aren't fully supported yet, but the simulations we've seen look very promising, especially one that shows a container being filled with water with objects floating and splashing about as the water level rises.

The Ageia PhysX PPU will accelerate the physics for any game that uses the NovodeX Physics engine. Epic Games, the company behind the Unreal franchise, has announced that it is using NovodeX physics in Unreal Engine 3, which may be the 3D game engine developers will use to build games on in 2006.

Since Ageia is a fabless semiconductor company, it will not produce its own chips or sell its own add-in boards. TSMC, a major Ageia investor, will manufacture the PPU chips, and third-party board partners will sell PPU cards. Cards will be compatible with PCI Express x1/x4 and normal PCI.

Ageia has not announced board partners yet, but company executives expect cards to be available in retail stores this holiday season. Ageia executives have called the PhysX chip a "multiplatform solution," but they declined to comment when asked if the chip would be present in a next-generation console system.

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