LGF: Ageia's man of Steele

Think faster CPUs and GPUs are the answer to better-looking games? One company thinks they have a better idea. Meet Ageia's Michael Steele.

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LONDON--Physics processors are going to be the next big thing in gaming and will revolutionize the way games are made and played, according to one executive GameSpot spoke with at this week's London Games Festival.

GameSpot sat down with Michael Steele, Ageia's marketing vice president, to talk about what he believes PC gamers really, really want--whether they know it or not.

According to Steele, his company's PhysX processor, which comes mounted on PC add-in cards, "promises to do for game action what the 3D graphics accelerator did for game visuals."

Never heard of a physics processor? Steele says of the new technology: "People now are starting to talk about physics as a viable category from a competitive standpoint; from the processor vendors, the key software players, the players, to the game developers."

Games like Half-Life 2, which many people think have some high-level physics simulations, are "simply scratching the surface" of what is possible, says Steele. "You're still going to see things like standard 'helmet hair' and painted-on clothing, water which from a graphics standpoint looks kind of cool but it doesn't really interact."

Steele continued: "If you look at physics in games today, its largely what we call "rigid bodies," which is objects colliding; for example, a ball bouncing off another ball, or a box bouncing off the platform as you shoot it. That's a rigid body; it's a hard thing bouncing across a surface. But it's so much more than that. Physics is also fluids, hair, cloth, joints...and many of those elements from an algorithmic point of view are all put together differently, so how you make those things interact is actually quite difficult. It's a computational power thing, which is where the hardware comes in."

But it's more than just painting a prettier picture, says Steele: "The way we look at it is that it's not just the way that things look, because they look great--they keep looking better, there's all kinds of cool graphics--but that's really just animation. That's just painting a pretty picture on the page." Steele says it's about how objects behave, move, interact. "We're about...about dynamic motion, about interactivity. Like massive explosions, they don't occur the same way every time, right? It's about fluids and it's about smoke and it's about particles, how all those things interact together."

What PhysX does, says Steele, is make gameplay much more realistic. "In today's gaming environment they don't really interact. It might look like they do, but they don't. [It's about] how things interact and it also has the potential of actually changing the outcome of the gameplay."

Steele believes that games can become more powerful and realistic if they harness this new technology, which will open whole new realms for creative potential. He says: "Up until now you've only had the CPU and the GPU. The CPU's doing all the game logic, the artificial intelligence, and the GPU makes it all look beautiful. And up until now the CPU has also done a little bit of physics, but really, just a little bit. A physics processor rounds what we call 'the gaming power triangle' nicely off."

But isn't a physics chip just something else gamers will have to shell out hard-earned cash for?

Well, says Steele, "if you look at PCs 10 years ago compared to where they are today, they're almost entirely different. Like it or not the PC industry itself evolves at a tremendous pace."

"When I look back on my own experience, I can remember the days of 386 computers, and I can remember sitting there thinking: 'I have no idea why I'd want a faster processor.' It was my job at the time to do it, and I remember wondering how on earth we would market a 486 PC, and then we got one on our desk and after using it, then my only thought was, 'How can I go back to my 386 now?'"

"I think that same fundamental question is asked over and over again and that same question is answered over and over again. Do we want more? The answer is always, yes, keep going."

Steele points out that the same elements of gaming keep evolving--graphics and AI. But other areas like physics haven't been keeping up, "so we're trying to do is the kind of things that help games evolve in a more interesting way." Part of this has been work behind the scenes to make it easier for developers to use this technology in their games. "If we can create an environment where it's easy for the developers to use and it's also easy for the gaming community to use as well, from a modding perspective, then you have all the pieces of the puzzle coming together, which will really make the category take off, and that's what we're doing."

Physics is all about four key areas, says Steele. "Fidelity, scale, sophistication, and interaction. Fidelity is basically how accurately can I simulate physics well? How accurately can I simulate a character running, and the joints moving properly in his body, or lava flowing through a field, or foliage twisting and bending in the wind? How accurate can I make that simulation appear? In terms of scale, how many of those things can I do at once? Obviously, if you do a lot of them, it takes more processing power. In terms of sophistication, how deeply can I integrate those effects? How realistic can they be? And finally, how can all those things interact together."

While Steele is focused on games as the perfect environment to make his and Ageia's mark, it isn't the only area. "It just happens that the best place to integrate physics initially is in gaming. That's not to say that there aren't other applications for physics technology."

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