Will Your Next Upgrade Be a PPU?

This article reprinted from PCWorld's Senior Editor Tom Mainelli's column, GeekTech.

Today's top-shelf computer games look pretty stunning, especially when you run them using a PC with a powerful graphics chip and a speedy processor. But you have to admit: Even the best games still don't look completely realistic. From the way explosions appear to the way water flows to the way a character falls down, there's still something less than real about it.

You know what I'm talking about. You pop a bad guy and he falls down, but the way he falls just doesn't look quite right.

The folks at a company named Ageia says the missing element is real-world physics, and they want you to add a third processor--yep, a physics processing unit--to your PC. The PPU would let game developers add more physics processing to their games.

Of course, many of today's games already employ some physics calculations, but the number of objects to which most game developers actually apply it is limited. That's because physics computations are processor intensive, and throwing too many of these calculations at the CPU can slow down the entire game. That's why Ageia created the PhysX processor.

Along with the CPU and GPU, the PPU forms what the company calls "the gaming power triangle." Within this triangle the CPU "thinks and orchestrates," the GPU "renders and displays," and the PPU "moves and interacts."

Right now, to get a PhysX processor you have to buy a system from Alienware, Dell, or Falcon Northwest. But in May Asus and BFG will ship retail PCI boards with the chip. Estimated street price: $300.

The question is, what will the technology do for you and your gaming experience?

Fully Interactive

Have you ever noticed that in most games, damage to a wall or a building is only superficial, and doesn't really affect game play? That's not realistic, says Manju Hegde, cofounder and CEO of Ageia.

"You blow up a building in a game, and it breaks up into 20 chunks and then they disappear," he says. "With a PPU, that building blows up into thousands of pieces, and then they stay."

Other effects the PPU could help create include explosions with damage-causing dust, debris, and shrapnel; weapons that cause varying degrees of damage; grass and trees that sway in the wind; fluids and gases that react to player actions; and characters that move more naturally, with articulated joints. (Check out Ageia's PhysX demos.)

The ability to include these elements does more than add eye candy to the game, Hegde says. It lets game developers create an entirely new level of interaction, and brings a new fidelity to the gaming experience.

"When you interact with an object in the gaming world, it should behave the way you expect it to," he says. "Cloth should flap in the wind, and if you pull it then it should snap or tear. Everything is breakable, and everything is usable."

Ageia says there are currently more than 60 game publishers working on more than 100 games that will support the PhysX processor. Upcoming titles include CellFactor from Artificial Studio; Bet on Soldier: Blood Sport from Take Two Interactive; and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter from Ubisoft.

Not the Only Game in Town

Ageia has been working on PhysX for several years, and right now it's the only company with a dedicated processor for physics calculations. But that probably won't be the case for long.

At this year's Game Developers Conference, nVidia announced its own physics plans in conjunction with Havok, maker of the Havok physics engine, which adds CPU-processed physics to current games such as Half Life 2 and F.E.A.R.

As a result of the partnership, Havok's upcoming FX engine will use current-generation (7 series) nVidia GPUs to process physics calculations. The process can work on one GPU, but it will work better on a dual-GPU SLI system in which one chip would handle graphics and a second would handle physics.

ATI has also discussed running physics on its GPUs, and the company has shown some demos, but it hasn't announced any specific products or partnerships.

Ageia's Hegde says he's not concerned that the two graphics giants could steal the thunder from PhysX. Ultimately his dedicated product will do the job better, he says.

"The multiple cores on our chip are designed to do physics," he says. "GPUs are also massively parallel, but they're geared toward graphics. It's inefficient, the way they're talking about doing it."

Then again, most of us already have a graphics card or two, so using the nVidia solution wouldn't cost us anything, and it wouldn't require giving up a PCI slot.

Hegde says, however, that it might not be long before you can have your PhysX without requiring an add-in board, too. He expects the PhysX chip to find its way directly onto enthusiast motherboards sooner rather than later.

In the end, I think gamers will use whichever system their favorite games support. Right now it's too early to tell which will come out on top, but in the short term I expect quite a few serious gamers to pony up the cash for a PhysX card. After all, these are the same people who will happily spend $300 to $600 for a new graphics card (or twice that for two) at the drop of a hat. Now consider the distinct disadvantage they could face in online shootouts if all their buddies have them and they don't, and you just know what they're going to do.

Tom Mainelli didn't like physics in high school, but he's willing to give the science another chance if it means he can blow stuff up more realistically. You can drop him a line.


Who's to blame for high gas prices?

Politicians propose legislation that would increase regulatory scrutiny of Big Oil - but fail to mention that voters could maybe give up the giant SUVs.
Spring is not even a month old but it's already promising to be a long hot summer for American drivers. Gasoline prices are surging toward highs not seen since the wake of Hurricane Katrina last fall - the national average now stands at $2.68 a gallon - and some experts are predicting $3.00 a gallon before long.
Interesting article, which draws the root of the gas problem not towards the Big Oil companies (reportedly, "Big Oil makes its money by pumping oil out of the ground, not refining and selling it as gasoline. Of Exxon's mammoth haul, only a tiny fraction came from making and selling gas in the U.S.") but to the traders at the NYMEX and other global bourses.
Kohl's bill, alas, won't do much to lower gas prices. The real problem here is the reluctance of Washington to make more than modest improvements in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. At the same time, politicians and other leaders seem unwilling to at least jawbone more Americans into giving up their SUVs and Hummers in favor of more fuel-efficient cars. Suing OPEC under U.S. anti-trust laws may be smart politics, but what about actually telling voters that they, too, have to take some responsibility for the problem?
Somehow I don't see the majority of Americans doing much more than whining over the gas prices as they spend $50 a day filling up their SUVs. Auto makers (some) are finally doing their part, Toyota has their excellent Prius (which I own one of, and rave about constantly) and also have a hybrid SUV (the Highlander), other models are available as well... But other makers still push their Hummers and Explorers as status symbols - Bigger is Better. Not just in cars, but you see it in houses too. It's a cultural hangup. Bigger portions of meals, bigger super-sized drinks, heck even bigger computer monitors (as I sit here staring at my 20" widescreen LCD).

Will we ever get to the point where we won't need our super-sized transportation? How many people really, really need a car the size of a Hummer for everyday transportation? I admit to some guilt myself - I drive a Prius to work everyday, which saves tremendous amounts of gas, but for road trips my family packs into our Town & Country minivan with only a little better gas mileage than the old Escort wagon (but much better than an SUV!). The trips go much easier with the built-in DVD player and roomy exterior... That said, how many trips as kids did we take in our old family sedan, with nothing to entertain ourselves in the backseat but toys or books? Or playing road games?

So yeah, it's a cultural hangup. I don't see us getting past it anytime soon. But maybe we are making some slow progress... Anything would help at this point...


Bell's Palsey

Funny how something you've never heard of before can affect you so dramatically. A condition that only occurs in about 23 of 100,000 people at some time.

It started last Wednesday, 4/5 (Donna's birthday, no less) when the pain in my left ear moved to behind it, on the back of my neck, and to my temple. Great, I think to myself, now I've got a whopping ear infection. So I plan on getting to the doctor's the next day.

I wake up Thursday with a funny feeling on the left side of my face. Can't wiggle both of my ears, just my right one. My smile doesn't go all the way to my left side. Really strange. I head over to the Urgent Care facility after work (I don't have a regular doctor as I rarely need to see one) but they say nope, no infection, just a muscle ache from driving so much.

So I carry on, but the muscles on the left side of my face get worse. By the weekend, I can't drink or eat without spilling out the left side of my face, and I can't close my left eye all the way. Which is really starting to irritate my eye.

By Monday Donna is taking me to the ER at Hagerstown hospital. Diagnosis is Bell's Palsey, a viral infection. No idea how it gets in someone's system. But of all the things I was dreading (mini-stroke or a brain tumor) this is the lesser of all evils. It's curable over a few week's time period with the meds I have. But, at least for now, I can't drive and looking at a computer screen is painful with my eye drying out so quickly. My head and neck hurt alot, and I get little sleep from it all. Plus hanging on to a coherent thought is very troublesome.

This puts a serious crimp in my gaming...


Usless Trivia Alert!

On Wednesday this week, at two minutes and three seconds after 1:00 in the morning, the time and date will be 01:02:03 04/05/06.

That won't ever happen again.

Don't you feel enriched for knowing, now?