The PPU and what it means for games

Every few years we see a major trend or shift in technology in the gaming industry that intends to redefine the way games are created thereafter. The late 70's we saw console games appear for the home entertainment center, with the introduction of personal computer games in the 80's. In the 90's we were introduced to the glory of 3D cards with the release of the Voodoo 1, which literally added a whole new perspective to games. The past few years everyone's been raving about 3D surround sound systems and thousand dollar home theater setups, just for games! Let us also not forget the internet that has brought about online games.

Now that we've entered a new century, with continued increases in raw computing power that allow advances that give us easier access to ever expanding game worlds, it is only fitting that another new leap in technology for the gaming industry should occur. I eagerly announce that this new technology has finally come to see the light of day amongst the masses. I welcome the introduction of the Physics Processing Unit, otherwise known by Ageia as the PPU. This technology was first intended as a standalone product, but now has come to be known simply as the physics processing capabilities of wherever the technology resides.

The PPU is believed by many to be the next big step in computer gaming. Now that graphics are becoming more and more realistic and games are filling up with unique and rich content, what is left but to spice it all up with a little bit of physics? The company that first drove this new technology to a new level is Ageia. They have been showcasing their add-on boards at the past few trade shows. The first board that they demonstrated is called PhysX, and companies from the gaming industry to the graphics industry are lining up in droves to take advantage of this new technology... but not in the way Ageia first intended.

Let's take a step back for a moment and look at the physics we've seen in the current generation of games. You might be asking yourself, "Many games have physics built in. What do we need this PPU for, which will probably cost us consumers just as much as a $400 video card?" Keep in mind with the PPU we're talking realistic physics effects. Don't be fooled by what may seem like a realistic tree swaying in the breeze but is simply the top rotating in a predefined pattern. Many older games have some sort of physics built into their environments. In fact, nearly every 3D game since the late 90's has at least basic physics support.

The problem is the realism and scope of the physics that's been attempted before. If you take the game Unreal Tournament 2003, it was able to process about 20 different physics interactions at any one time. Interactions for example would be boulders falling from a hillside, or a tree swaying in the breeze. Unreal Tournament 2004 increased that total to 40. Is that really enough though, just 40 different components in an entire landscape? And how well did the game designers really make the physics realistic? Just like how badly the CPU processes GPU specific workloads, the PPU has its advantage in processing physics specific tasks. We need this dedication to bring forth not just 40 physics components, but 4000!

Think about how a burning building has hundreds of interactions, from falling boards to burning furniture, and you quickly come to the conclusion that the number 40 isn't nearly high enough to simulate a real-world scenario to its fullest. This is where the PPU really shines. This means for the gaming fans you'll see truly realistic water effects, realistic movement of grass and flora as you walk your character through a landscape, as well as individual cloud interactions, player animation effects, and all sorts of other physics interactions. You might never even thought about all the various interactions that are possible until your draw drops when you see how real it is with a PPU. Image casting that tornado spell and not only seeing a swirling vortex, but also your character's hair whipping in the wind, the leaves and debris on the forest floor lifting up and getting sucked into the tornado as it moves across the landscape towards your opponents, all with little or no increase in your current computing power.

That is what the PPU will be able to do for us, and it's only the beginning. This new technology may be particularly interesting for those who play fast paced action online games where destruction and mayhem occur all around a character. With a PPU enabled those interactions would look very realistic and not be constrained by only a few interactions. Essentially the PPU may ultimately give game designers a near unlimited constraint towards building new game worlds on a physics level, that truly redefine the way we view our online worlds.

"How will this PPU be installed into future gaming systems and when can I go buy one?"

Earlier this year Nvidia purchased Ageia, specifically to integrate their technology into the GeForce lineup of graphics cards. You won't be seeing separate cards like Ageia was planning, but instead a seamless transition from hardware based physics on a separate card to a more software based solution through the adaptation of drivers, with a little hardware support built right into the existing graphics cards. Who is going to take advantage of this new way of incorporating physics into graphics cards? The game companies of course!

Epic Games was the first to announce Ageia's technology in their latest engine, the Unreal 3 engine. Right now for the online gaming fans we won't be seeing a PPU enabled game probably for another year or so, but once we do those waterfalls, tree movements, boulders falling down a hill, destruction physics, and much more will be so real the term "internet gaming addiction" might take on a whole new meaning. Let us just hope the gaming companies don't forget about all the quality content when they realize how cool it is having realistic physics.

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