It has been almost a year since I took a look at Ageia's technology (Virtually Real: Hardware acceleration and parallel processing yield realistic gaming, ED Online ID 12541), but it is finally here in a form you can pick up at the corner electronics store for about $250. I took a look at the PCI version but a PCI Express version should be hitting the shelves about the time this review makes it out. It will not change the functionality but it will provide higher bandwidth.
The Ageia PhysX is a massively parallel, multiprocessing system see the Figure) specifically designed to accelerate the processing of a virtual world. This is a chore normally done by the main processor. Still, even with the four-core monster we used on this project, the job can be overwhelming as the accuracy and granularity of the simulation increase. It is one thing to emulate a rocket as one solid object, but when a real one blows up it breaks into millions of pieces spewing hot gases and fire all over the place.
Game designers have tried to simulate explosions and other effects through a range of approaches from very crude sprites to special effects that have been improved by the hardware acceleration available on graphics adapters. Unfortunately this still does not enhance the calculations necessary to handle the interactions between objects. For example, water needs to flow around a rock and the smoothness of the rock will affect the eddies in the water.
This is where the PhysX engine comes into play. It handles this interaction and it does so with thousands of objects. It can handle the more complex sphere-to-sphere or convex-to-convex collision detections at a rate of 530 million checks/s. To do this it has a peak instruction bandwidth on the order of 20 billion instructions/s.
This performance allows for continuous collision detection for all objects. Game designers that do not have this available tend to reduce the visual complexity of their game. This engine allows complex object physics systems to be created. Ageia also provides technology support for features such as its Physical Smart Particle Technology and Scalable Terrain Fidelity system. This not only provides improved performance and capabilities but simplifies a game designer's job, allowing them to concentrate on other parts of the game.
The engine keeps a substantial amount of world information in its 128 Mbytes of 128-bit GDDR3 memory. This allows the main processor to concentrate on the rest of the game and deliver graphics information to a graphics adapter like the AMD X1950XTX. This distribution of work allows significant performance increases as well as a more realistic environment.
The result of using Ageia's PhysX accelerator in games like City of Villains by Cryptic Studios/NCsoft and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter from GRIN/Ubisoft is impressive. In many ways it is subtle. The increased realism available through the use of today's graphics adapters is outstanding. What the PhysX does is make this presentation much more realistic to the point of making it difficult to determine if you are watching something real or created. It allows a person's movement to be more natural. Objects move or break more realistically into random pieces moving in directions you expect bouncing around in a natural fashion. It is actually difficult to describe because so many of the effects are incremental but significant. For example, the downdraft of a helicopter does not simply generate a foggy area but an actual draft that throws debris down, out and back up. Just what you would expect. Of course, this means the game designer has to utilize the PhysX engine to accomplish this, but such an approach would be totally impractical without the hardware acceleration.
This will definitely be one board that first and third person game players will be flocking to get.