To a physics fan like Manju Hegde, even today's best video games look fake. When a building blows up in a game, he notices the debris doesn't cascade like a waterfall or scatter correctly and cause damage to nearby structures.
That's because game creators haven't taken the time to calculate the physics that govern the behavior of objects such as falling bricks. Hegde, CEO of Mountain View, Calif., startup Ageia, wants to make it easy for them to do that with a chip for the personal computer that specializes in physics calculations.
Dubbed PhysX, the chip will enable things like gelatinous creatures whose bodies shift shape like a liquid, crumpling fenders in car crashes, massive explosions with 10,000 pieces of debris, clothing that hangs realistically, and lava or blood that flows like the real thing.
"We think a game should be like the 'Star Trek' holodeck," Hegde says, referring to the virtual-reality simulator from the science-fiction TV series whose illusions were indistinguishable from real life. "Our chip is the first step toward that."
Ageia has $38 million in venture capital from firms such as Apex Partners and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing. It has commitments for $30 million more from other investors.
One reason Ageia has garnered such support is its chip could tip the scales in the PC's battle with game consoles.
The PC gaming community is about to be overshadowed by another set of new consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Those machines will have plenty of extra processing power to handle better physics.
The consoles will be able to calculate the interaction of moving objects and determine what the graphics chip needs to display on the screen at any instant. And they may have enough power to imbue the game environment with physical attributes, so that the grass sways when the wind blows.
Hegde says a PC with a physics chip could match the consoles.
Physics chips are "a major innovation that is likely to breathe new life into the PC as a gaming platform," said Jon Peddie, president of graphics-research firm Jon Peddie Research.
But do gamers really want to buy an add-on card just to improve the realism in their games?
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