Chip Makes Gaming More Realistic

Kids play video games
Carve a wrong turn in the deep powder of the video game "Stoked Rider: Big Mountain Snowboarding" and you'd better brace for an avalanche of swirling white snow engulfing everything as it crashes down the mountainside.

Such games used to be a simple matter of steering downhill and performing tricks as a wintry, 3D world of virtual pine trees and moguls inconsequentially whirred by.

Those games looked realistic, but the objects in them did not behave realistically. Because of the computing muscle needed to calculate all those snowflakes and their interactions, avalanches were pretty much out of the question.

"Stoked Rider," though merely a demonstration, is one of the first examples of how video games can benefit from a new breed of computer chips dedicated to calculating the physics of a game's virtual world.

Leading the effort is Mountain View, Calif.-based Ageia Technologies Inc. The company is the first to offer a specialized computer chip — called "PhysX" — designed to give video games a better sense of reality, as dictated by Newtonian physics.

"I've always been bugged that, with all the high-power technology, that the games aren't more realistic," said Manju Hedge, Ageia's co-founder, chairman and CEO. "Computers are very underpowered for a lot of things."

That's certainly true in video games, which tend to be one of the most demanding tasks for computers.

The idea behind PhysX is to take the strain of physics calculations away from the central microprocessor, freeing up all sorts of possibilities in video games.

The processor comes on a card that installs into a free slot inside a desktop computer running Windows. It's able to process hundreds of thousands of moving objects at the same time, its creators claim.

So what does this mean?

Imagine you're in an industrial warehouse packed with wood boxes, piles of lumber and oil drums. And you just so happen to have a grenade launcher at the ready.

In the real world, blasting these objects would have obvious, chaotic results: The boxes would splinter and burn, smoking logs might roll across the floor, and the spilled oil would roil and slosh around the ensuing mess.

Take this situation into the traditional video-game realm, and everything becomes static. The virtual boxes may burn and move around, but they would never break into splinters like they would in the real world. Same goes for the logs and the oil.

The reason? Limited computing resources.

Between the computer's main processor figuring out the artificial intelligence of the game and the video card displaying the graphics, there isn't enough leftover power to bother with the enormous amount of data crunching needed for more realism.

"It would always come at such a high performance cost, there was always a trade-off," said Jeremy Stieglitz, president of Artificial Studios in Gainesville, Fla., which is developing a game that takes advantage of the PhysX chip. "What PhysX does is really eliminate that trade-off."

The advent of such specialized chips mirrors the rise of dedicated 3D video cards in the mid-1990s.