AGEIA Physics Processor at E3

Jason Cross

Back in March, after the Game Developers Conference, we ran an editorial questioning whether or not the PC gaming world is ready for a dedicated physics accelerator chip. In it, we mentioned how badly AGEIA handled the coming-out of their PPU, or Physics Processing Unit. They had no live demos running on hardware, could name no partners, no software titles using the hardware, no price estimates. Now, a few months later at E3, things have changed a lot.

We sat down the company and witnessed two demos running live on first-run, A0 silicon. The final silicon that will ship in boards is A1—AGEIA made a simple metal spin, but made no major changes to the silicon design. It’ll be produced on a standard .13 micron CMOS process at TSMC. Who’s going to build boards with this thing? So far, ASUS is the first to announce a partnership with AGEIA. They’ll have a PPU board with AGEIA’s chip on the market in the fourth quarter of this year, with 128MB of GDDR3 memory, for roughly $249 to $299. Initially, it will only come only in a PCI card, with PCIe cards expected further in the future.


PIC: AGEIA board.jpg


CAPTION: Here’s a shot of the PCI board containing AGEIA’s PPU. The final will probably not have all those dip switches. –>

The first demo was graphically simple, but still fairly impressive. A large rocky hillside had about 4,200 boulders dropped at the top, which all bounced, tumbled, and interacted in a realistic (and speedy) fashion. AGEIA claimed that a dual-core CPU can handle maybe 800-1,000 in a demo like this, but was quick to note that 4,200 boulders was nowhere near the capability of their chip. There’s a driver issue right now where a lot of the timings need to be worked out between the massively parallel math units in the chip. Within a couple of months, the company will have a new driver which will enable them to raise the boulder count to 32,000. They’re confident they can reach that number, but even if they can only get halfway there, 16,000 to 20,000 boulders is a lot better than a CPU can do.

The other demo was somewhat less impressive, showing particle-based fluid dynamics by displaying a shiny car that had fluid streams “sprayed” on it, like a primitive car wash. The particles could be change to plasma, soap bubbles, water, or whatever, but it honestly didn’t look that great. Chalk it up to having programmers make demos, and not having real artists involved. The demo involved 6,000 particles, but again, that’s the driver timing issue rearing its ugly head. The fixed driver in a couple months should be able to handle 40-50,000 particles.

At launch, the PPU cards will only handle rigid-body and particle-based fluid dynamics physics calculations. A driver update early in 2006 will enable both soft-body and hair/clothing acceleration as well. The cards will come with a tech demo made in the Unreal Engine 3, created by the team that made Crimson Skies for the Xbox, where the player can run around a hanger crowded with boxes, crates, barrels, and a plane, and absolutely destroy everything. We saw a video of the demo, and it looks neat, but the highlight came when the plane crashed into the hangar and realistically destroyed stacks of crates and boxes in an explosion of interactivity we simply don’t see in games.

AGEIA was able to name some software titles that will enjoy physics acceleration, too. Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends from Microsoft, Ghost Recon 3 from UbiSoft, City of Villians from NC Soft, and Atari’s Matrix license Path of Neo are some of the highlights they told us about.

We still haven’t seen what actual game titles look like when accelerated by the AGEIA PPU—those demos will come later this summer, as the game content and PPU drivers get a little further along. Still, this initial push into hardware accelerated physics seems like a much more solid offering than it did at GDC two months ago. We look forward to seeing it in action, in a real top-tier game, to see if it delivers the gaming revolution AGEIA promises.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in ExtremeTech.

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