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Q&A: Ageia CEO Manju Hegde

CEO talks about the PhysX processing unit, the PlayStation 3, and getting developers to support the Ageia PhysX PPU.

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Physics technology startup Ageia has had a busy summer getting its PhysX software development kit into the hands of anyone who has come within five yards of a game-development workstation. Mythic Entertainment, Quantic Dream, and Digital Jesters have signed on in recent weeks, joining the growing ranks of PhysX SDK developers, which already include Epic Games, Ubisoft, Cryptic Studios, and Ritual Entertainment. Earlier this year Sony announced that it was including an optimized version of the Ageia PhysX SDK with the PlayStation 3 SDK.

Developers can use the Ageia SDK to add physics effects and interactive gameplay elements to their games. While one imagines that most developers will be using the SDK primarily for CPU software acceleration without a dedicated physics processor, games using the Ageia PhysX SDK will have built-in support for physics hardware acceleration. Ageia must have this application support to give gamers a reason to buy a PhysX PPU card.

GameSpot caught up with Manju Hegde, Ageia founder and CEO, for an e-mail interview to discuss the current status of the PhysX processor and his predictions for physics-accelerated games.

GameSpot: Sony announced last month that it has sublicensed the Ageia PhysX SDK for the PlayStation 3. How does getting your physics library into the Sony PlayStation 3 SDK help Ageia on the PPU front?

Manju Hegde: The Sony announcement is significant for two major reasons: More developers will be exposed to the powerful features, particularly multithreading, within the Ageia PhysX SDK; games that are developed for the console will be easily ported to the PC platform thereby creating a larger installed based of Ageia PhysX hardware-accelerated games. Finally, games on the PS3 are likely to incorporate physics in gameplay, which makes physics an essential and vital component of the game, thereby paving the way for PC games which the physics processing unit is essential.

GS: Do you see game developers porting PlayStation 3 games to the PC that will be able to run only with a PPU, or is that thinking too far ahead?

MH: In the short term, we expect to see many titles that support both the Ageia PhysX SDK as well as the Ageia PhysX hardware. However, it is only a matter of time before a plethora of game developers see a large enough installed base of Ageia PhysX accelerators on the market to justify a specific hardware requirement. However, we may see a few in 2006.

GS: How does the Ageia PhysX chip compare to the Cell processor?

MH: From what we understand, the Cell processor will have physics capabilities, hence, the recent SCEI announcement that it will include the PhysX SDK in its standard PlayStation 3 software development kit. It remains to be seen at what extent it compares in features to the PhysX processor.

GS: At QuakeCon 2005, id's John Carmack expressed concern that initial PPU-enabled games may slow games down similar to how early 3D-accelerated games ran slower than software mode. He also speculated that physics effects might be relegated to periphery rather than having a core role in gameplay. How do you address these concerns?

MH: As with any new technology, it's fair to anticipate both the expected advantages and disadvantages. The goal of the PhysX processor is to provide an increased capability for physics calculations to the game developer without slowing down the game. We have been working for more than a year with developers to ensure that the value of the PhsyX processor is highlighted within the game and have been careful to ensure that the scaled use of physics does not slow the game down. I believe the performance of the PhysX processor will please developers and impress gamers. The real evidence though will be the games that will start shipping with the PhysX processor product beginning later this year.

As for physics in games, we have already seen games that include physical objects as part of the gameplay. Our technology extends the current direction of innovation in games so developers can add more objects and incorporate fluids into either special effects or gameplay. There are definitely artificial intelligence and design hurdles to overcome with greater use of procedural physics for gameplay. The increased power of the CPU, the increased awareness of the need for scaling AI, and the spotlight of physics in the new-generation consoles all bode well for the use of physics in gameplay.

GS: When do you think we'll see games that incorporate physics as an essential part of the game?

MH: Next-generation consoles were touting physics effects at E3. We foresee in 2006 and early 2007 that many games will make physics effects an integral part of game realism. I think we have already seen examples of games where physics was an integral part of the game. Next-generation games need to go beyond simple effects of boxes, and that's what PhysX is all about.

GS: Several developers have announced that they're using the Ageia PhysX SDK. Are any of them working on content designed specifically for PPU-enabled systems? Would you be able to share any specific gameplay examples?

MH: Bet On Soldier, from Digital Jesters, is using the Ageia PhysX SDK and will ship with hardware optimized features. For instance, the gas launcher weapon will be used interactively to "shoot" acid, hallucinogen gas grenades, and incendiary "flame" grenades. It is obviously the capacity of PhysX to manage the fluids in real time, which makes the gas launcher so interesting and impressive.

For the owners of a PhysX card, these effects will thus enhance the software effects in three major ways: realistic collisions with the environment while maintaining frame rate; visual effects will be more convincing with a mixture of viscous fluids, gas fluids, and realistic motion (gravity and inertia); residual fluid particles will leave traces on the environment.

GS: When can we expect to see PhysX cards on store shelves, and how much will they cost?

MH: The PhysX processor is expected to be in add-in cards by this Christmas at a retail price point of $249-299.

GS: How many physics-accelerated games will be available at launch?

MH: As with any product that relies on game content, we won't launch with fewer than three titles at launch. Beyond these initial titles, we are working with developers to have additional games released throughout 2006.

GS: Finally, what features would you like to improve in your PPU design for the next version?

MH: Next-generation PhysX processors will add additional processing capacity to support features such as hair and clothing simulation. Our goal is to simultaneously simulate many different physics effects so that the entire experience becomes richer. However, we are not in a position to announce specific details of a prereleased product at this time.

GS: Thanks, Manju.

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