A Physical Presence

Published Date
01 - May - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2006
A Physical Presence
In human years, an era could last for decades or even centuries, as we all learnt from our history textbooks-however, in tech time, an era rarely lasts even a decade.

For a very long time now, the graphics card era has reigned supreme in the gaming world. We've all enjoyed watching the giants in this field, NVIDIA and ATI, battle it out, and reaped the benefits-at a steep price of over $500 (Rs 24,000) a card of course! It's come to a point where the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is far superior in terms of floating point units computed than the CPU. Of course, it's a little unfair to compare the two, because a CPU needs to be a lot more general in its application than the GPU, which is designed and built to do just the mathematical calculations required to render video in real-time-but the pure calculating superiority of the GPU cannot be ignored.

Not since the emergence of GPU technology for the PC, and the emergence of PC gaming, almost a decade ago, has anything changed significantly in terms of hardware. It will now!

Are You Insane?
A lot of you are thinking, "Nothing's changed? What has this writer been smoking?" Sure, cards got faster, transistor and die sizes shrunk faster than a roadside pair of jeans in your washing machine, and the resulting graphics went from jagged edges to the surrealism of today. It was still nothing revolutionary, not in the pure technological sense! Ever since graphics processing loads were taken off the CPU and transferred to the GPU, we sort of reached a stalemate. Games have gotten a lot prettier, and most of us swear we could smell the ocean in Far Cry; but then you sneak up behind a couple of baddies, shoot one, his friend somehow doesn't hear the shot you fired from three feet away-from a shotgun, no less-and keeps on walking his predefined sentry line, and you are rudely awakened and brought back to reality. How many times have you shook your head in disbelief and disgust at in-game physics and AI? Even the prettiest-looking games have terrible physics.

Of course, of late, game developers have begun adding some wonderfully realistic physics computation into their engines-and what better example than Half-life 2's Gravity Gun to exemplify these? But who are we kidding? All of us know the difference between a game setting and actual video footage-and it's not the characters or backgrounds that let the cat out of the bag! Have you ever seen an oil spill in a game? It looks more like black coloured water than oil. What about when you're climbing a hill (in a game, of course), the way the rocks tumble down the side of the hill you're climbing just looks fake! The same applies for the flow of water in a stream; ditto for the way a glass window shatters when you shoot a bullet through it, or the lack of any mark or bullet holes in the wall you just emptied a clip into. To get into some morbid details, it's also unrealistic when you shoot a guy in the foot two or three times and kill him-makes us wonder if he died in relief after finally getting rid of that nagging pain his ingrown toenail has caused him for years!

OK, It's Unrealistic, But So What?
Now that we've made our point about the idiotic physics in most games, let's see what can be done about it! Those of us who have had the pleasure of playing games with great physics engines, such as Half-life 2, will vouch for the fact that more realistic physics is already possible-it's just a matter of creating or coding the game engine that way! So what's stopping the developers?

A lot of developers have already begun developing games that interface with Ageia's technology to offer much more realistic physics engines

There's the minimum system requirement problem: developers just cannot make a game that only runs on four computers in the world-that would be a rather idiotic business decision. So, games are developed so they can be played on most mid-range to high-end modern computers. This means that even though you have a dual-core 4 GHz CPU and 4 GB of RAM, you're playing a game that was also developed with your neighbour in mind, who has a mere 1 GHz CPU and 256 MB of RAM. Sure the game will look prettier on your 7800 GTx than on his TNT2, but the physics will remain the same for both. After all, the game was probably designed to be able to calculate its physics on an 800 MHz CPU!

That's Not Fair!
Sure, but how can you change the fact that game developers actually have companies to run, and will always program with minimum system requirements in mind? Change the way PCs are built, of course…

And that's exactly what American company Ageia Inc. plan to do!

Ageia is a fabless semiconductor company, and is the first to develop and sell a PPU (Physics Processing Unit), called PhysX, to the general public. They have developed the hardware and software, but do not manufacture the PPUs themselves-they leave the manufacturing and selling to companies such as Asus, Alienware, Dell and Falcon Northwest.

This news is not new to the technology world: Ageia have been showcasing their designs and PPU for some time now. In fact, a lot of developers have already begun developing games that interface with Ageia's technology to offer much more realistic physics engines. You can already go out and buy the Ageia PhysX card-provided you're in the US, of course-as well as a few games that have already been tied into Ageia's technology. A few examples of already-released games are Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. The most noteworthy "soon-to-be-released" game that will showcase the PhysX technology is Unreal Tournament 2007.

So We'll All Have PPUs Now As Well?
If you want to have the very best in terms of gaming hardware, yes! Of course, as with other gaming hardware, PhysX will not be cheap. We're not very sure about the prices right now, but the guesstimates say between $200 and $400 per card. That's about another 15 thousand rupees you'll have to spend on your gaming rig!

Here's the Ageia PhysX board that promises to revolutionise gaming for us all

For the first time since graphics and processing computation were separated into the GPU and CPU respectively, the hardware business is in for a complete revamp of sorts. Though PhysX cards will only be available as PCI or PCIe cards initially, motherboard manufacturers, such as Asus, are already looking at integrating PhysX into their boards. Be prepared to see much better-equipped onboard graphics solutions from major motherboard manufacturers soon.

Here you can see the incredible fluid dynamics that the PhysX PPU makes possible. The picture shows soap bubbles on a car being washed-realistically!

Of course, this innovation will find its way into the consoles soon enough, but it's the PC that we're interested in right now, and the PPU is surely the most phenomenal thing for PC gamers since the coming of age of the GPU!

What Will Improve?
In order to better understand the differences between the physics computations that a really high-end CPU can achieve, and what a PhysX-powered system can achieve, head to https:// physx.ageia.com/footage.html and www. alienware.com/standalone_pages/ageia_physx.aspx. The difference between an explosion now and after using PhysX is:

Normal: "Boom, clang, crash, poof    (smoke clears and guy standing more than 10 metres away from explosion doesn't even blink)"

PhysX: "Kaboom, clang, crash, clang (x100), crash (x50), poof, (smoke billows, and people standing 20 metres away, as well as you yourself, get a little damage due to the flying shrapnel)

This means you cannot run around a map carrying a rocket launcher, because you'll only succeed in blowing yourself up-but who said you could do that in real life anyway? Realism is the key, and PPU solutions will soon have us believing. For one, PhysX promises more realistic explosions, where things that explode actually do so into thousands of pieces-and all of them random-sized of course, not like dividing a truck into a thousand equally-sized pieces and then exploding it! There will be interactive environments, so you can actually destroy a building if you have enough firepower, or at least make a hole in a wall. Everything in a map could be made destructible if the game engineers so desire. And, of course, when you're destroying stuff, explosions, fire and gas will behave like in the real world.

Apart from the object interactions we're raving about, PhysX will also mean more realistic fluid dynamics-so oil will look and flow like oil, and smoke will not travel through a wall or pillar, but behave more realistic. Many of you would have noticed that, in games, smoke behaves the same way outdoors as it does indoors. Sometimes a game's physics is so ridiculous that it will depict trees and grass waving in a strong breeze, yet the vehicle you just blew up will send up an absolutely straight column of smoke that doesn't disperse. Also, when indoors, you would have seen smoke actually going through a door and just disappear when it hits the ceiling; in reality, smoke would collect at the ceiling and then spread outwards, slowly engulfing the whole room in a black, acrid fog. PhysX promises experiences like these in games that will be developed using their software and hardware technology.

But What About ATI And NVIDIA?
In any talk about gaming, you cannot forget about the two graphics giants. Both companies seem to be convinced that they will soon make the need for a separate PPU, GPU and CPU combination redundant. Both feel their GPUs are powerful enough to do physics computations, and that it's just a matter of utilising all the gigaflops of processing power that are not used on their latest-generation cards.

NVIDIA has tied up with Havoc, a company that has done physics simulation work for some of the biggest game developers in the world, to create the Havoc FX Engine. This engine is basically a software solution that will command the CPU to send physics processing load to the GPU. According to reports, the FX engine will work with both single as well as multiple NVIDIA GPU-based systems (SLI). However, the cards that will support running this software will have to be 7600 or higher series cards. Now this isn't ideal, because the majority of people using NVIDIA's products own 6-series cards (such as the 6600GT). Of course, even with the lower penetration of NVIDIA's 7600 series and above cards (7900 recommended), they're still a lot better off than Ageia, who are starting from naught!

According to NVIDIA, even using a single high-end 7-series card to do your physics processing will increase the amount of physics processed. In terms of evidence, they provided a fixed amount of physics processing (15,000 boulders colliding). They read frame rates for when the CPU did the calculations, and compared it to the GPU taking over the physics calculations. The results sound too good to be true: the CPU managed 6.2 fps while the GPU managed 64.5 fps! The same GPU pair (for SLI mode) was used in both tests, so it wasn't a with-and-without-GPU comparison!

If NVIDIA can reproduce this success with physics processing in real world tests, Ageia may already be in trouble. With almost every NVIDIA-loyal gamer buying (or at least saving for) an SLI pair of cards, a lot of people are going to have a lot of free computing space on their GPUs which, if Havoc FX does what it promises, will eliminate the need for a separate PPU!

ATI are convinced that their Crossfire solution will soon have both NVIDIA and Ageia licking their wounds. According to them, their latest brands of graphics chipsets already have physics processing capabilities. They're already working on an API that will give a game direct access to their GPUs, thus significantly reducing CPU load. This means that even the Direct3D and OpenGL API layers can be skipped when processing physics, which is a sure-fire way of increasing performance.

Another great advantage ATI has is that their Crossfire cards need not be identical (as SLI forces you to do), and so if you've just bought an X1900XT, and a few years down the line decide to upgrade your graphics card, you need not throw away or sell the X1900XT. All you need to do is force the physics processing on this card, so you save a lot of money and get a very high-end graphics from the newer card at the same time. In fact, ATI claim you need not even be running the cards in Crossfire mode: so long as an ATI card is installed in a PCIe slot and powered, it can take over physics calculations! A boon indeed!

The End Before The Beginning?
No, don't write off Ageia just yet. In order to make completely interactive and realistic worlds, the physics calculation power required will increase exponentially! As games get heavier, and system requirement stats soar to all-time highs, most gamers would prefer to have a separate device that does physics computation and also allow them to eke out the maximum from their GPU cards. After all, getting great game physics at just 20 fps is not something we want. We'd rather spend Rs 10,000 or so extra and get great physics at 60 fps!

The bottomline is that Ageia admits that currently, even a GPU will show vast improvements in current physics rendering, but says that once game developers start using advanced collision and fluid dynamic physics in their offerings, the GPU will struggle. Of course there's no telling whether ATI or NVIDIA will revamp their architectures to increase the memory bandwidth, or not! For now, Ageia's PhysX is the only offering that promises integration with upcoming games, and also offers a more realistic feel.

Another point to ponder is that there's no common driver API for PhysX, NVIDIA or ATI, and this is already cause for concern. Game developers are not going to make four different versions of a game, one for regular PCs, one for Ageia's PhysX, another for NVIDIA and yet another for ATI. So a standard is needed, and, as usual, everyone's hoping for some intervention from Microsoft here-since most games are made for the Windows platform anyway!

Also, Ageia has a huge head start over NVIDIA and ATI: games have already been developed for its PhysX cards, which are already being retailed, whereas both the graphics giants are only just contemplating the development of methods by which their GPUs can do physics computation.

Whatever the outcome of the battle that's brewing, one thing's for sure: the game industry is set to smash all previous records, and reality will finally enter the game domain! Life has never been this good for us gamers!

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.