May 1, 2006
New Physics Chip Aims to Shake Up Video Games
SAN FRANCISCO -- A Silicon Valley start-up hopes to introduce a lot of bounce, rattle and roll into the video game industry with a new microchip that makes virtual worlds behave as realistically as they look.
For years, video games have been getting prettier thanks to increasingly sophisticated graphics processors.But crates that don't budge, planks that don't splinter and windows that don't break are a constant complaint of gamers who crave more than just skin-deep realism.
Ageia Technologies Inc. wants to change that with its new PhysX processor, which simulates the physical properties of everything from smoke to rocks.
"What we are offering to the game industry is the ability to make physics and interactivity reach the same level of importance that graphics has," said Manju Hegde, AgeHia's chief executive.
"Physics makes games feel real the way graphics makes games look real," Hegde told Reuters in a recent interview.
Ageia faces a number of obstacles, however, from skeptical gamers grumbling at the prospect of opening their wallets for yet more hardware, to competitors that are putting physics in games using existing chips like a graphics processor.
The chips will go on sale in retail stores in May for about $300, but the price tag is already raising eyebrows in online forums, where gamers are asking whether its worth paying extra for an unproven technology.
And, the chip may be somewhat ahead of its time, since current machines may not be able to keep up.
During a demonstration at Ageia's head office in Mountain View, California, Hegde showed off "CellFactor," an upcoming game in which rival combatants can use mental powers to move, break and fling nearly everything they see.
The chip's power was obvious as a maelstrom of debris whirled about, piling up against walls and scattering across the arena.
But before starting the demonstration, Hegde had to lower the resolution of the game.
The reason? The chip can generate so many objects that even the twin graphics processors in Hegde's top-end PC have trouble tracking them at the highest image quality.
Still, Hegde is betting that gamers will happily sacrifice some graphical fidelity in exchange for greater interactivity.
Buildings will blow up spectacularly, football tackles will become more bone-crunching, and cloth will flutter and crumple, lending a dramatic flair to online role-playing games.
Analysts say Ageia could rewrite the rules of the game for an industry whose $10 billion in annual U.S. sales of hardware and software outstrips Hollywood's box office take.
"The physics chip adds a level of reality in games we just haven't been able to get," said Rob Enderle, principle analyst of Enderle Group, a technology consultant.
"Right now, structures and most vehicles are rigid and just don't play as they would in the real world," Enderle said.
Ageia has certainly attracted investor interest. It has had three funding rounds, and the top contract manufacturer of microchips -- Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. -- is one of its biggest backers.
But Ageia isn't alone in its focus on physics.
Graphics card powerhouse Nvidia Corp. has thrown its support behind software from Havok, a company whose physics engine is used in such popular games as "Half-Life 2."
However, Ageia's unique hardware may pose a challenge that can't be met by a graphics chip, which is designed specifically to create pictures, not crunch physics calculations.
"The idea of taking a graphics processor away from image generation is nonsensical. Why buy it in the first place if not for graphics?" asked independent market researcher Jon Peddie.
Ageia's chip debuted in March in high-end gaming rigs from Dell Inc., its Alienware unit, and privately held Falcon Northwest.
Ageia says its technology will soon be in scores of games, including A-list titles such as military tactics game "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter" by French publisher Ubisoft and an update to "City of Villains," an online role-playing game by South Korea's NCSoft.
"The consumers will see how the games behave better," Hegde said.