Last week, NVIDIA announced that they have agreed to acquire AGEIA. As most here probably know, AGEIA is the company that make the PhysX physics engine and acceleration hardware. The PhysX PPU (physics processing unit) is designed to accelerate the processing of physics calculations in order to offer developers the potential to deliver more realistic and immersive worlds. The PhysX SDK is there for developers to be able to write game engines that can take advantage of either a CPU or dedicated hardware.

While this has been a terrific idea in theory, the benefits of the hardware are currently a tough sell. The problem stems from the fact that game developers can't rely on gamers having a physics card, and thus they are unable to base fundamental aspects of gameplay on the assumption of physics hardware being present. It is similar to the issues we saw when hardware 3D graphics acceleration first came on to the scene, only the impact from hardware 3D was more readily apparent. The long term benefit from physics hardware is less in what you see and more in the basic principles of how a game world works.

Currently, the way the developers make use of PhysX is based on the lowest common denominator performance: how fast can it run on a CPU. With added hardware, effects can scale (more particles, more objects, faster processing, etc.), but you can't get much beyond "eye candy" style enhancements; you can't yet expect game developers to implement worlds dependent on hardware accelerated physics.

The NVIDIA acquisition of AGEIA would serve to change all that by bringing physics hardware to everyone via a software platform already tailored to scale physics capabilities and performance to the underlying hardware. How is NVIDIA going to be successful where AGEIA failed? After all, not everyone has or will have NVIDIA graphics hardware. That's the interesting bit.

PPU/GPU, What's the Difference?

Why Dedicated Hardware?

Ever since AGEIA hit the scene, GPU makers have been jumping up and down saying "we can do that too." Sure, physics can run on GPUs. Both graphics and physics lend themselves to a parallel architecture. There are differences though, and AGEIA claimed to be able to handle massively parallel and dependent computations much better than anything else out there. And their claim is probably true. They built hardware to do lots of physics really well.

The problem with that is the issue we mentioned above: developers aren't going to push this thing to the limits by creating games centered on dedicated physics hardware. The type of "effects" physics that developer are currently using the PhysX hardware for is also well suited to a GPU. Certainly complex systems with collisions between rigid and soft bodies happening everywhere would drown a GPU, but adding particles or more fragments from explosions or more gibs or debris is not a problem for either NVIDIA or AMD.

The Saga of Havok FX

Of course, that's why Havok FX came along. Attempting to make use of shaders to implement a physics engine, Havok FX would have enabled developers to start looking at using more horsepower for effects physics without regard for dedicated hardware. While the contemporary GPUs might not have been able to match up to the physics processing power of the PhysX hardware, that really didn't matter because developers were never going to push PhysX to its limits if they wanted to sell games.

But, now that Intel has acquired Havok, it seems that Havok FX is no longer a priority. Or even a thing at all from what we can find. Obviously Intel would prefer all the physics processing stay on the CPU at this point. We can't really blame them; it's good business sense. But it is certainly not the most beneficial thing for the industry as a whole or for gamers in particular.

And now, with no promise of a physics SDK to support graphics cards, and slow adoption of PhysX hardware, NVIDIA saw itself with an opportunity.

Seriously: Why Dedicated Hardware?

In light of the Intel / Havok situation, NVIDIA's acquisition of AGEIA makes sense. They get the PhysX physics engine that they can port over to their graphics hardware. The SDK is already used in many games across many platforms. Adding NVIDIA GPU acceleration to PhysX instantly provides all owners of games that make use of PhysX with hardware for physics acceleration when running on an NVIDIA GPU.

As we pointed out, compared to current GPUs, dedicated physics hardware has more potential physics power. But we also are not going to see a high level of relative physics complexity implemented until developers can be sure consumers have the hardware to handle it. The GPU is just as good as the PhysX card at this stage in hardware accelerated physics. At this point in time there is no benefit to all the power that sits dormant in a PhysX card, and the GPU offers a good solution to the kinds of effects developers are actually using PhysX to implement.

The PhysX software engine is capable of scaling complexity and performance if there is hardware present, and with NVIDIA GPUs essentially being that hardware there is certainly an instantaneously larger install base for PhysX. This totally tips the scales away from the need for dedicated hardware and towards the replacement of the PPU with the GPU at this point in time. We'll look at the future in a second.

The Face of the Competition
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  • Rezurecta - Tuesday, February 12, 2008 - link

    I don't believe it has to be AMD to make this acquisition successful. The true golden apple is the software that integrates hardware with games. That must be Microsoft and DirectX. If they decide to implement physx technology with DirectX don't you believe that it will make the product and acquisition successful and force AMD to compete or integrate physx technology?

    BTW I am not an expert just making an observation.
  • SuperGee - Wednesday, February 20, 2008 - link

    Well the key point with this take over is for nV a replacement for HavokFX. A populair middleware tool. Wich PhysX SDK takes over from.

    For the HArdware Dedicated Physics part.
    There are a lot G-cards out there.

    nV has a larger momentum to be able to push Dedicated Physics much harder.
    AMDIT also on it would give a tad more push to it.

    As if the whole PC market that 100% would be a PIE.
    It might be that PPU piece would not be a very visible target market. 1% ?
    While nV got already a large piece. So nV GPU alone has a much bigger target platform. Even the g80 and G92 parts alone.
    Wich have some reserves to do render and PhysX on one GPU.
    The unified shader aproach to balance VS PS GS and PhysX tasks over the +/- 100 shaders units.
    Or a spare GPU to do it dedicated.
    So in the long run for nV it's more sales for GPU for this new HArdware accelerated market. Started by ageia.
  • knitecrow - Tuesday, February 12, 2008 - link

    The sales trends are clear, mass market belongs to consoles.

    Why would any developer support a solution if it cannot work across the board? For hardware physics to be successful it has to be support within the directX framework and by AMD. Ideally it should work on consoles as well and AMD hardware.

    Going forward, developers are going to put more resources on consoles and less on pc.
  • tmouse - Tuesday, February 12, 2008 - link

    I do not know what "trends" you are quoting. If you mean the botched up hardwareshack redirected article that was pointed to by dailytech you should go back and read my comments. In a nutshell the PC market for retail sales on game software was at least 46% NOT 18%. Probably it was over 50% since, in general software prices are higher for the consoles and the numbers were only given in dollars sold not units shipped. Just think about it: the console race is very much a 3 horse race, with the "lowest tech" player leading. The second place player’s development platform is trivial from a port aspect. As far as physics goes; it will not be a major player for the Wii, that leaves the 360 and PS3. The PS3 is a difficult platform to program for and while it probably will move up from last place, it simply will not be “THE” dominate gaming platform the PS2 was in its generation. The 360 is basically the PC platform which means development for it is developing for at least 75% of the gamers. Physics development will only help; NOT detract from PC gaming. Now I agree the developers want the PC platform to die because consoles protect their IP much better, but they have to eat, so to try to force the issue would be suicide for any gaming company. There will always be FAR more PCs than ANY gaming platform and that simply is not going to change. Add to this the severe changes that occur when the next generation of the platforms come, which almost always radically change the way developers have to program to account for the hardware changes. PC development is a good fall back until they can ramp up for the next platforms. It takes at least a year after the platforms are released to see volume and quality on platforms. While PCs do have rapid advances in graphics capabilities they have always had backwards compatibility so games are rarely developed for the newest PCs. I simply do not see it going away soon.
  • SuperGee - Wednesday, February 20, 2008 - link

    PhysX supports Consoles.
    But the PS3 is somthing special.
    It's Cell has some what more equalness with the PPU architekture.
    But misses the internal bandwith and some restrictions.
    So PhysX would run well on a PS3 as if it had a second GPU.
    I espected Exclusive PS3 game supporting PhysX to be more Physics rich games. The Dev's have this opertunity to differ PS3 version from the other consoles. With more Physics.
  • Mr Alpha - Tuesday, February 12, 2008 - link

    Isn't PhysX already available on PS3?

    Besides, the PC gaming market has been a proving ground for new technologies before they end up in consoles. Except for when somebody convinced a certain console maker to stick a supercomputer processor in a console, but I shan't name any names. We might end up seeing some form of hardware physics acceleration on the next generation of consoles.
  • Cygni - Tuesday, February 12, 2008 - link

    They said this when the PS1 came out. They were wrong then, and it is still wrong now.
  • MadBoris - Tuesday, February 12, 2008 - link

    "How is NVIDIA going to be successful where AGEIA failed? After all, not everyone has or will have NVIDIA graphics hardware. That's the interesting bit."

    My first thought was licensing the technology for GPU or even chipset could work. Then Tony made it clear they would share it. That's really what has to be done. But if AMD put's their nose up they can virtually stick Nvidia with an acquisition that will do them no bit of good. If AMD doesn't get onboard it will be chicken and the egg all over again and devs won't integrate physics into games, then Ageia will make NVIDIA a nice paper weight.
  • paydirt - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    I disagree here. I _think_ one of the main reasons that games stink for Crysis is because Crysis is physics-intense...? If AMD doesn't come onboard, then their benchmarks will stink for all the pretty shooters out there that use lots of physics. Imagine if, after implementing physics the 8800 GT, it doubles Crysis framerates...? (Has anyone tested Crysis with an AGEIA card? I guess they have). That would be a huge boost over AMD if it made a big difference in frame rates for the "resource hog" games.
  • paydirt - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    From the Crysis FAQ:

    "11) Does Crysis support any specialty hardware such as Ageia PhysX?

    Yes, however Crysis will not support the Ageia PhysX card due to the fact that Crytek have built their own proprietary physics engine which is not only more advanced than Ageia's, but performs very well on ordinary CPU's (especially multi-core platofmrs). Crysis will support various technologies out of the box including 64-bit operating systems, multi-core processors (as mentioned above), DX9 through to DX10 and many gaming devices such as gamepads. On top of that, the Sandbox editor that comes with Crysis supports the use of a webcam (or any other video capturing device or camera) to animate character expressions."

    This is probably the reason why Crysis framerates suxxors.

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