A Need for a PPU?

AGEIA is attempting to break the mold of the PC gamer’s box by adding a completely new card into the mix: a physics processor. With promises of fully interactive worlds and fluid dynamics unseen before, how can you go wrong?

Update (May 2, 2006): You can find two newer articles on AGEIA’s PhysX technology at PC Perspective.  At GDC 2006, AGEIA revealed a lot of details on the PhysX processor hardware and the features it sports.  As of today we also have several videos playing Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter as well as the Cell Factor demo. In GRAW we show pairs of videos that demonstrate how game play changes when adding an AGEIA PhysX processor.


Several months ago, a small start up company by the name of AGEIA brought a new term into the lexicon of PC gaming enthusiasts.  A new product was outlined with promises of being “the next big thing” for gamers and developers alike to bring about a world of realism like we have never seen before.  We all first heard about the PPU, or Physics Processor Unit, and its first form, the AGEIA PhysX processor. 

AGEIA was founded in 2002 with investors such as Bank of America and even TSMC, one of the largest semiconductor manufacturers in the world.  AGEIA as a company is a fabless semiconductor company, just like NVIDIA, meaning they must outsource their chips production to one of the several manufacturers across the world.  With TSMC being big investors in AGEIA, it doesn’t take a lot of thought to think of what foundry they might be going to for their PPUs. 

I have had several meetings with representatives of AGEIA, and each time the presentation has started with a single quote from their CEO and Founder, Manju Hegde: “Our vision is the creation of real-time physical simulation processors, which transform consumer experience.”  A simple statement that comes with very large implications to their technology and its future.  I will evaluate at the end of this article how closely I see Manju’s dream coming into reality, if at all.

Who needs a Physics processor?

According to AGEIA, you do!  And of course game developers as well.  AGEIA quotes Valve CEO and Half-Life 2 developer, Gabe Newell with: “It wouldn’t be the same game without physics.  The interesting aspect of physics is to drive gameplay, not flop around corpses.”  Other game developers I have talked to agree that physics is an integral part of nearly all future and current game designs, not just the first person shooter genre. 

And any gamer that has played HL2 would tell you that the additional physics in the game really does add significantly to the gameplay.  No longer are you as limited as you once were with what you could use to kill zombies or to destroy the random wood blocking doorways.  But what AGEIA is hoping game developers will be able to do with their hardware is much more than simply allowing you to use certain items, instead they want you to be able to use ANY items to destroy any other item.  This makes things much, much more difficult for both developers and current harwdare. 

The PhysX PPU Card

Before we get into more of what AGEIA has planned for PhysX enabled games, let’s take a look at the actual hardware that the PPU will come on. 

The only currently announced supplier of a PhysX product is Asus, and in fact AGEIA claims that Asus will be the heavily favored vendor in terms of unit market share.  All of the currently available developer cards are produced by Asus in the package you can see below. 

AGEIA PhysX Physics Processing Unit Preview - Processors 7

Asus-based AGEIA PhysX PPU Card

The product is set to be available to add-in card users and system integraters starting in Q4 of this year; hopefully we’ll see them (and software using them) ready in time for the holiday buying season. 

The specs we currently have on the card are as follows:

  • 125 million transistors
  • 182 mm^2 die size
  • 130 nm process technology from TSMC
  • 20 watts power consumption
  • 128 MB of GDDR3 memory

From these specs we can get quite a bit of information.  First, the 125M transistor count is quite large for an add-on card and the die size is actually fairly big too no doubt because of the .13 micron process.  You can see in the picture that this requires an active cooling system in its current form, meaning more noise from your case.  The 20 watt power consumption requires the card to have a 4-pin Molex power connector on the card (you can see it on the upper right of the image).  The amount and speed of the memory on the card might suprise some of you as well, as many of you are still running on GPUs with 128 MB of memory!  The PhysX PPU uses the local buffer to store a current state of the world, and as applications grow in their use of physics and complexity, the additional memory will be very useful.

The image of this card shows both PCI and PCI Express support on the same card, though we are told by AGEIA that this won’t be a retail feature but it is included on the developer cards for their testing purposes only.  The first release of the PPU cards are going to be in PCI form with PCI Express versions coming in 2006 when the additional bandwidth or demand requires. 

The currently expected MSRP for a card like this: $249 to $299.  Yep, you read that right.  Be prepared in the years to come to add another $200+ part to your system for optimal gaming experience.  A chip this size and this complex isn’t going to come cheap, at least not in its current form. 

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