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GDC: Ageia's PhysX Launch

March 22, 2006

At the website for this year's Game Developers Conference, a search for "physics" nets 42 session hits; a similar search for "3D" returns 118 results, while "story" and "3D" garner 71 and 58 hits respectively. Not bad for a component that has only been on the consumer video game landscape for a few years. During that time, developing in-house solutions and using tools like Havok and ODE (Open Dynamics Engine) were the primary ways for game developers to get physics into their games. Ageia hopes to see that change with their PhysX hardware and SDK.

Ageia's vision of the future hardware balance.

At Ageia's venue some 15 miles away from the hubbub of San Jose and GDC, we were greeted by Ageia CEO Manju V. Hegde, Ph.D., Vice President Kathy Schoback, and a shiny green BFG-branded PCI card. Their message was clear: PhysX is real, and both developers and consumers should be excited.

Throughout the presentation, Manju spoke of rebalancing the state of the video game. While the 3D accelerator that is now commonplace has brought increasingly impressive visuals to video games, current motion and dynamics drop us back into the uncanny valley. To the current CPU-GPU relationship Ageia adds the PhysX PPU or Physics Processing Unit to help add more immersive motion to increasingly realistic graphics and environments.

The demos showing off the PhysX were quite impressive. Running on a Windows PC-powered by a high-end AMD processor and two nVidia GeForce 7800s in SLI configuration, the PhysX board helped power the dynamics of a couple of games. First was Immersion Software's CellFactor: a visceral first-person shooter that featured psychic powers, futuristic physics-based weapons, and lots of objects to use said weapons on. Seeing a grenade-like weapon first gather up surrounding objects, everything from concrete pipes to jeeps and individual players, before expelling them as hot shrapnel was amazing to see in real-time. Blood erupted from people in globules that beaded and flowed down the floor before disappearing. The other interactive demo was a look at the coming patch for Digital Jesters' Bet On Soldier; here, the new napalm gun shot out its fiery liquid in streams that bounced of walls and flowed down rocks.

A downloadable update to Bet On Soldier adds new weapons employing PhysX.

There were plenty of non-FPS demos as well. Extensive cloth demos showed various fabrics getting pulled around and over themselves as well as stretched and fractured. Plush dolls were pushed, bounced, and squeezed through rotating gears. Rugby players slammed into each other and onto the ground with an impressively nonchalant natural quality.

While we haven't seen PhysX consumer availability until today at GDC, Ageia has already done much to get developers on board. The PhysX SDK is the default SDK in the coming iteration of Unreal, and it was recently announced that PhysX would be shipping to PS3 developers at the end of this month.

Ageia touts 60 developers currently using the PhysX SDK in their development, and they expect to see around 100 PhysX-supporting titles through 2006 and 2007, ranging from first person shooters like the coming Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter to MMORPGs like Warhammer and the City of Villains – Mayhem Missions expansion.

The PhysX board itself is set to be a 299 USD (MSRP) product, and the company does not expect to refresh their product any time soon. In the demos we saw, the CPU and SLI GeForce cards are actually the bottleneck; the PhysX is barely used, said Manju. Interesting for a company that wishes to make its revenue solely in sales of the product. Earlier versions of the PhysX SDK were available for download of Ageia's website, and the technology will be free of charge for developers to use. Kathy Schoback pointed out that already independent developers are utilizing PhysX to good effect; one of this year's Independent Game Festival's entries, Atomic Elbow's Crazy Ball, is currently running on the GDC show floor with Ageia's hardware.

Ageia also announced at GDC integration of their SDK into DarkBASIC Professional, a popular game development tool targeted at non-programmers.

Physics in games is on the minds of many programmers and designers here at Game Developers Conference. Ageia is hopeful that their solution resonates with many developers and consumers, starting with their GDC launch.



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