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AGEIA in 2007 – Is This the Year of the PPU?

Date: February 22, 2007
Author(s): Greg King

It’s been over nine months since we’ve last taken a hard look at what AGEIAs been up to, but we are about to catch up. We are looking into what they’ve been up to and also what’s on slate for the coming year.



Introduction


2006 was quite the year for those of you following the computer enthusiast world. Throughout last year, we saw the materialization of Conroe from Intel as well as their uber powerful Kentsfield CPU which basically mated a pair of Conroes on one chip. AMD had their answer in the form of 4×4 which places a pair of CPUs on one motherboard and while this isn’t exactly original, and certainly not a first, it has its place in the hearts of the enthusiast. Also in 2006, we saw the first DX10 card in NVIDIA’s 8800GTX/GTS.

Last March, we were fortunate enough to cover one of the earliest advances of the year at the GDC. It was at the GDC that Ageia debuted their PhysX card to the public. And it was at the GDC that Ageia showcased the card and what it was capable of. Ageia saw the future of PC games progressing towards more interactivity and their concept was simple: to create an atmosphere that gives the user the ability to interact with virtually anything in the game and in turn, to make the experience as realistic as possible.

There had been physics in games for quite a while and one notable company is Havok. Known for their work on the Half Life 2 series, they have a strong showing with their software driven approach to physics. Ageia saw this, but also saw the eventual limitations in the current hardware. How can a CPU and GPU alone, both being taxed by the games of the time, also calculate object interaction needed to give the games a more lifelike feel? Their approach was a simple one. Let the CPU do what it was intended to do and let the GPU do the same. They set out to build a stand alone card that would handle the in-game physics by itself and they would give the software to make it happen away for free.

At the GDC, we saw some very interesting ideas and an impressive game demo: Cell Factor. With nothing else immediately available, Ageia was waiting on the games. This would be a shared experience for Ageia and the end users who were early adopters and jumped aboard the PhysX train from the start.

Now, let’s fast forward to today. It’s been nearly a year since the PhysX card was unveiled and we are sitting in the exact same spot we have been since the GDC. Because of this, Ageia has taken quite a bit of heat from the press and we at Techgage haven’t exactly been proclaiming the virtues of the PhysX hardware. By now, we have all read the reviews. We know of initial performance drop in games when PhysX is enabled but thankfully this was an issue that Ageia corrected quickly. We have also read about how the card is overpriced for the additional “wow” that it adds to games. And keeping that in mind, there really haven’t been that many games to add any wow to.

Another concern of Ageia, at least initially, was the news that ATI and NVIDIA both had plans to address the handling of game physics. They claimed that this could be done by existing hardware that power users might have lying around. This would be made possible by the use of a third, less powerful graphics card in the place of the PhysX card. Until recently however, very few motherboards included the three necessary PCI-E slots needed to use three GPUs. This made sense at the time too. How many people upgrade their video cards frequently enough to still have a very capable card just sitting idly? I would be willing to bet that not too many people have such a card lying around.

Since the GDC though, there really hasn’t been much mention of this approach by either camp, making Ageia the only true company to address, and carry out, the issue of computer game physics. If you want this editor’s honest opinion, the announcement from ATI and NVIDIA was nothing more than a knee jerk reaction to steal some of the spotlight away from Ageia. While what they said can be done, there has not been any really progression of this technology since. Needless to say, at this point and time, I don’t see either party endangering Ageia all that much. So with ATI and NVIDIA out of the picture as an immediate threat, I only see two major threats to Ageia and their PhysX approach to PC game physics.

Threat One: Multi-core CPUs

Just a few days ago, Rob took an in depth look at Intel’s “budget” quad core Q6600. In his review, the CPU truly shined in multi-threaded apps. When a program was written to take advantage of processors with more than one core, the benefits of owning such a CPU are evident. Intel has released a small little “game” called Ice Storm Fighters that does a good job showing just how well a program can run when coded to use more than one core. In the demo/game, you have the ability to toggle each core on and off individually. If you scale back to only one core being used, you see a significant drop in frame rates and as you turn more on one by one, the performance of the game scales nicely.

It’s this multi-core technology that I see being Ageia’s largest external threat. Not ATI or NVIDIA but rather, the programmers who could decide to offload the physics onto one core, rather than use the PhysX card.

This can be argued against though by bringing up games such as Alan Wake. This is a game that has an incredible buzz surrounding it. Showcasing DirectX 10, it not only looks great, but does so using as many cores as it can. Developers that take this approach will could use one or two for the primary processing, one solely for enemy AI and still have an extra core to use for physics. At CES, we spoke with Intel for a while about their eight core PC. Using a pair of quad core Xeons on a dual socket server motherboard, the PC proved to be an unrivaled beast. This is what I feel Ageia’s biggest threat is.

Threat Two: Ageia and the Game Developers

Without wanting to sound like a broken record, Ageia truly needs games to sell their technology and their cards. Without quality games, Ageia is doomed to roam “hardware with great potential” purgatory in the PC history books. We have all seen Cell Factor, but it’s a demo. We have all seen Ghost Recon: Advanced War Fighter. Let’s face it, a demo and a game patch won’t exactly drive demand for the PhysX card through the roof. However, there is hope for Ageia in the coming year. They were showing off a few new games at CES this year as well as a closer to completion Cell Factor.



Games

As previously mentioned, Ageia was showing off a few games that make use of the PhysX card. The first game up was Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien. Stoked Rider is a snowboarding game and is produced by the guys at Bongfish Interactive. Such an appropriate name for a snowboarding game, by the way. In the game, you pretty much have free roam of a mountain. As you board down the hill, you realistically interact with the snow. As you carve, you knock loose snow just above and below your character. This falling snow then pushes the snow below it and so on and so forth. This avalanche effect is driven by the PhysX card. While not a game that I personally enjoyed playing, it does show the potential that PhysX has in games like Stoked Rider. In the following pictures, we see not only Manu Hedge’s personal domination of this game, but also the amount of particles being shown on the screen and how toggling PhysX hardware on and off affects the frame rate of the game.

You can clearly see that with half the particle count, the frame rate still is half what it was with PhysX acceleration enabled, even with twice the particles to account for. While not a particularly enjoyable game for me, it does show the benefits of using the PhysX card and even though the snow doesn’t look exactly real, at all, it does interact with the other particles and there is clearly an avalanche effect to the slopes.

Bet on Soldier: Black out Saigon.

This is a series that has used the PhysX card before. In Black out Saigon, the game takes advantage of the cloth properties that the card has to offer. If anyone has seen the video of the first Cell Factor demo from the GDC, the one thing that blew people away was when the character in the game used their psi-powers to pick up one of the large pipes and hurl it towards, and through the large cloth banner hanging in the stage. Also shown was a machine gun sawing though the same cloth and with each swipe of the gun, the cloth fell and bent realistically, just as one would expect it to in real life. In BoS: Black out Saigon, plant life interacts with gunfire, as well as movement just as the cloth does in Cell Factor.

The stage that takes advantage of this the most is an outdoor area, much like the areas in Far Cry, where you run and gun through thick vegetation. As you make your way though, the plants move, sway and break as you run, walk, crawl and shoot your way through it. At this time, I do not have any screens of this game, but as soon as I get my copy of the game working, I will post pictures and videos of the in game action in our forums.

Another title that we saw, and this is the biggie, was Cell Factor. We all remember when we first saw the original demo. Ageia was proud of it and we were certainly blown away with what we saw of it at the GDC. The ability to manipulate everything on the screen, and even destroy it, was incredible. Over time though, this became old. You could do multiplayer with the demo but still, there was only one arena and it got old. We are proud to say that Cell Factor is nearing completion, at least nearer than it was when we last spoke about it and there are many more levels and arenas.

As more news comes out about this game, rest assured that we will bring you everything. The following pictures are taken from the latest build of Cell Factor. Notice the three different types of characters, as well as the pictures where the character is pushing the fire. While I have not been a big fan of the way PhysX represents liquids, I will admit, the ability to push the molten metal around in the air does add quite a bit of strategy to the game.

Finally, we get to Warmonger. This is a first person shooter based in what appears to be an apocalyptic setting. We don’t know all that much about the game but we did see a bit of it at CES and we do have some screens to share with you now. Just like Cell Factor, when more news is released about Warmonger, we guarantee that we will bring it to you as soon as we can.

A New Hope

I know I completely ripped off Mr. Lucas with that line, but I feel it aptly describes our feelings about Ageia now. I think that the stakes in 2007 are far higher than they were last year. It’s been a year since we first laid our collective eyes on what we were told was the future of gaming. While a lot of that first meeting was pure marketing, one couldn’t help but be excited. The truth is, Ageia is a company that I truly want to see succeed. They brought a completely revolutionary product to market last year and managed to hard launch that product, making it immediately available to OEMs first, followed by end users shortly afterwards.

As we say all this, we want this to succeed for so many reasons. We have met with Ageia, top to bottom, and they are the most humble, down to earth people you could ever want to meet. One of them is even a fellow Hoosier. This is where we wish them all the personal luck in the world. From a journalistic standpoint, we want to see this work out because of the bottled up potential that PhysX has in it.
I am honest when I say that Ageia has a potential winner on their hands. This isn’t new to anyone. We are not the only ones that feel this way about them. The addition of dedicated physics processors into the gaming world can be huge, but only if more big name developers start programming games from the ground up. No more patches. There comes a time when something has to happen.

For Ageia, this is their year. We have seen the games that are in the works. Warmonger could be good. UT3 will be huge regardless of what technologies they use but if they make good use of the PhysX capabilities, it could be the feather in Ageia’s cap they have so desperately needed.

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