Nvidia GPU physics engine up and running, almost

Posted by Theo Valich

Santa Clara (CA) – Nvidia told analysts that that the conversion of Ageia’s physics application interface to CUDA is almost complete. To demonstrate the technology’s horsepower, Nvidia ran a particle demo similar to what have been showcased by Intel on Nehalem – at more than 10 times the speed.

We can’t really recall how long and how often true physics capability has been promised by various parties over the past three, four years. But there are more signs that stunning physics visualization in fact is becoming a reality and it appears that Nvidia is taking the lead for now. With Ageia on board, the company has a key technology and   Manju Hegde, co-founder and former CEO of Ageia, confirmed that the port of Ageia’s technology to Nvidia’s CUDA is almost done.

We were not really surprised to hear that it took just a month to convert PhysX from a stand-alone API to CUDA. After all, PhysX is a well-known multi-platform physics engine, as it is used in more than 140 games in development and number of registered developers tops out 25.000 figures. CUDA is supported by the GeForce 8 series and up (in all seriousness, don't go below 8800 if you want to play with CUDA), Ageia is now looking into expanding its user base from 150.000 to more than eight million, we heard.

In order to demonstrate the physics horsepower of the GeForce 8800/9800 series, Hegde took aim at Intel's eight-core Nehalem particle demo, which can be seen in one of our IDF articles. Back in Shanghai for IDF Spring 2008, our own Humphrey Cheung filmed Intel's demo and a statement from Intel's engineer, who talked about the fact that CPUs could soon be strong enough so that you wouldn’t need a GPU in the future. While Intel told us later on that the engineer’s remarks did not reflect the company’s opinion, the statement made waves at Nvidia and prompted the company to create a physics demo with 65,000 simulated particles.

While Intel's Nehalem demo had 50,000-60,000 particles and ran at 15-20 fps (without a GPU), the particle demo on a GeForce 9800 card resulted in 300 fps. If the very likely event that Nvidia’s next-gen parts (G100:  GT100/200) will double their shader units, this number could top 600 fps, meaning that Nehalem at 2.53 GHz is lagging 20-40x behind 2006/2007/2008 high-end GPU hardware. However, you can’t ignore the fact that Nehalem in fact can run physics.

There was also a demonstration of cloth: A quad-core Intel Core 2 Extreme processor was working in 12 fps, while a GeForce 8800 GTS board resulted came in at 200 fps. Former Ageia employees did not compare it to Ageia's own PhysX card, but if we remember correctly, that demo ran at 150-180 fps on an Ageia card.

Hegde stressed that the PhysX engine does not include quantum mechanics because the company "focuses on physics for fun and entertainment". The executive believes that in-game physics will be the “second biggest thing” in 2008, only trumped by video processing and transcoding from one video format to another (Blu-ray or a DVD to iPod).