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, California-based Ageia Technologies. The company is the first to offer a specialised 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. However, it remains unclear how many will buy into a product like PhysX.
Only the highest-end PCs need apply. PhysX requires a system with a speedy processor and graphics card – after all, all those extra bits of flying metal and glass still have to be drawn on the screen by the graphics card. In fact, lower end systems may see a performance hit with PhysX.