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Ageia PhysX Processing Unit

Ageia was founded in 2002 with the aim to create a special-purpose physics processing unit (PPU) and offload processing or rich physics effects from the central processing unit (CPU). The firm managed to acquire PhysX middleware with the purchase of ETH Zurich spin-off NovodeX in 2004 and unveiled its PhysX PPU at Game Developers Conference in March ’04. Even though Ageia managed to launch its PhysX cards in March, 2006, after numerous delays, the hardware has never become popular.

Although Ageia PhysX card used to cost several hundreds of dollars and few end-users wanted to buy it, the main problem was that PhysX was not supported by game developers. In fact, Ageia was in sacred cycle: nobody wanted a piece of hardware that is not supported by software and no one wanted to support hardware that is not installed widely.

As a result, rival middleware developers continued to make CPU-based physics engines more advanced and game developers continued to use them. In fact CPU-based physics engines have an important advantage over PPU- and GPU-based engines: they can process both effects physics and gameplay physics. If the former only means additional visual eye-candy, the latter means change of gameplay because of certain physical impact. In practice this means that game designers have to ensure that gameplay engine fully “understands” that certain objects may be destroyed and process certain things using CPU.

Asustek Computers Ageia PhysX accelerator card

Ageia fully understood that PPU would not get popular by itself and offered ways to process physics effects on various microprocessors, including those found inside today’s video game consoles. PhysX PPU could offer richer physics effects provided that game developers had implemented them, however, the vast majority of software makers were not interested in spending money onto effects that few people will ever notice.

Even though there were some games and demos that seriously took advantage of PhysX PPU, the amount of additional particles or objects generated by the chip was so high that graphics processors became performance bottlenecks. When this transpired back in 2006, it became clear that Ageia either have to work closely with both GPU and game developers to ensure smooth framerate of PhysX-enabled titles or become a part of one of the GPU suppliers. Since it was Ageia’s fourth year, its investors were hardly happy with the lack of any progress in terms of hardware popularization, it was logical to sell off the company, which was done in early 2008 when Nvidia agreed to acquire Ageia. Considering the fact that graphics processing units are highly parallel, it is possible to compute physics effects using GPUs, which is exactly what Nvidia is trying to do with GeForce and PhysX nowadays.

There were numerous reasons why Ageia PhysX failed to become a de-facto industrial standard and failed to become popular:

  • Proprietary hardware is not something PC game developers like;
  • Hardware that does not provide any benefits cannot become popular among end-users;
  • Standard that only takes advantage of one type of hardware (whether it is called 3dfx Voodoo, PhysX PPU or GeForce GPU) never becomes de facto standard in the long term.
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