GDC 06: Next-gen physics in full force

Ageia, Havok, Nvidia, and Epic Games bring physics to the forefront at GDC.


SAN JOSE, Calif.--Game Developers Conference 06 is the first open skirmish between competing physics middleware companies and hardware manufacturers as they battle to get the attention of game developers tasked with adding next-gen physics to their games.

Dramatically improved physics has been one of the major promises of the next-generation game experience. The Xbox 360 CPU has three processing cores, and the PlayStation 3 Cell processor's seven synergistic processing elements provide a tremendous amount of horsepower for physics calculations.

Physics companies Ageia and Havok are both at GDC to show off new technologies that promise to lift the PC platform up to the same physics processing level as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Ageia announced this week at GDC that it is shipping its PhysX processor, a physics processing unit designed for add-on physics cards. PC manufacturers Dell, Alienware, and Falcon Northwest will offer PhysX cards for their gaming systems, and discrete add-on PhysX boards will be available in May from Asus and BFG.

Physics middleware developer Havok is also in the mix at GDC announcing Havok 4.0, the newest update to its middleware suite, and running new hardware-accelerated Havok FX physics demonstrations with GPU manufacturer Nvidia.

Improvements in Havok 4.0 allow the physics simulator software to better exploit the multicore processors in today's PCs and next-generation console systems, and Havok's FX technology lets game developers access the processing power of the video card GPU to accelerate physics effects.

Closed-door and open-door sessions at GDC are understandably replete with physics demonstrations. Ageia's demos are currently the most polished, since the company is now shipping product.

Interested conference goers were able to get their hands on a playable Cell Factor multiplayer shooter demo in the Ageia booth. Developed by Artificial Studios, the Cell Factor demo featured a multilevel fuel station map filled with boxes, pipes, cloth, shipping containers, and a handful of vehicles. Players could use "psi" powers, Star Wars Force-like effects, to toss around objects and even each other.

Ageia plans to bundle the demo with its PhysX cards with a full collection of mod tools to let players explore and modify the code behind the physics.

Over at the Havok booth, the company is demonstrating a wide range of rigid body, fluid, and particle effects running on Nvidia GeForce 7900 GPUs in its exposition suite.

One demo shows a bowl filled with thousands of gumballs that collide and interact with each other realistically in real time. Changing the attraction characteristics while adding transparency and blur effects transforms the gumballs into fluid droplets that pool and scatter like water.

Development partners are also on hand demonstrating Ageia- and Havok-powered physics effects.

Epic Games demonstrated physics effects currently in development for Unreal Tournament 2007 on a PlayStation 3 development kit. The physics effects built on Ageia software include boulders that cascade down the mountainside and collide realistically with a player-controlled vehicle and a gravity ball that can attract a very large number of rigid body objects together and move around the screen without a hitch. The demo is running on PS3 hardware, but Ageia promises that a PC can run the same effects if it has an Ageia physics add-on card installed in the system.

Nvidia sponsored tutorial sessions on using the GPU to accelerate Havok-enabled physics. And judging by the standing-room crowd for Nvidia's Thursday-evening "Physics Simulation on Nvidia GPUs" conference session, game developers are definitely taking notice of physics.

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