Next big step in the evolution of gaming hardware?

Is it physics processing? Before you scoff, try and remember back when the first 3dfx 3d graphics acceleration cards were shipping. They cost $100’s of dollars, few games supported them, and very few people believed they were worth the expense.

Until they actually saw one in action.

If you’ve played Halflife 2, you’ve seen somewhat effective physics modeling and the effect it can have on gameplay. Imagine then that you could accelerate and accentuate that to the nth degree – if you could, you’d have something like the Ageia PhysX PPU (warning – dumb flash-intensive site…and yeah…stupid name, but anyway), a ~$300 product designed to offer physics acceleration to gaming engines in the same way 3d cards offered graphics acceleration.

It’s very early days on this stuff – the cards are just showing up at retail this weekend the only game you can buy that supports them is the just-released Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, a well reviewed game, no doubt, but not something that’s going to convince many folks to rush out and buy a $300 piece of hardware to enhance it. There’s more to come, though, including the next Rise of Nations game (shipping in a week or so) and more importantly the entire Unreal 3.0 engine. That last is the real deal, the system that can potentially make the physics PPU a worthy addition to your gaming rig. Unreal Engine 2.0 is the most licensed 3d engine of the current generation, showing up in dozens of games each year for the last couple of years, and there’s a great likelihood the same will be true of version 3.0.

I won’t be rushing out to buy one of these cards, but I do have high hopes for this. I also hope the price drops, just as they have for 3d accelerators, and that more developers latch onto them.

There’s a pretty good review of the now-shipping cards over on hexus.net – for those who can’t be bothered to read it, their conclusion is similar to mine – shows promise but it’s early days.

Oh, and there are movies from a variety of games (including GRAW) demonstrating what physics processors can add to games at the Aegia site I linked to above. Unfortunately they focus on eye candy when I really think it’s in gameplay mechanics where these devices could prove the most interesting. Generally eye candy is what the masses go for though so I can’t fault them for focusing on it. Definitely check them out – whether it is this product or one from some other vendor, I think the concept is here and will begin to emerge as a selling point in gaming over the next couple of years.

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