The arms race for physics processing has begun

Hot on the heels of NVIDIA announcing its partnership with Havok for GPU-level physics implementations, ATI is saying it too is capable of performing heavy physics computations on its GPUs. There is currently a great deal of focus being placed on how to speed up and implement better physics in games and interestingly AGEIA has been preaching that physics processing belongs on a discrete processor designed to handle just physics and nothing else. This approach is very much similar to the way 3dfx designed its first few successful 3D processors, which didn't do anything except accelerate 3D.

Both ATI and NVIDIA are using the same method of computing physics on their GPUs -- load and process some physics calculations if there's just one GPU, or load and process all physics calculations onto one full GPU if there are two GPUs (Crossfire or SLI). In regards to both methods, the approach is monolithic, meaning that both ATI and NVIDIA prefer to load all things related to graphics onto the GPU. ATI claims that its latest X1900 family has more than enough processing power left sitting idle most of the time to take care of physics and 3D rendering. This is a strong indication that the current state of 3D graphics is far too concerned with frame rate when it should be looking into how best to utilize the chips that ATI and NVIDIA produce.

According to ATI, the ability to process physics exists on both R520 and R580 architectures. The functionality is enabled via software drivers and can be delivered in various ways. ATI says that it will implement a low-level proprietary API that developers can use to pass physics functions too. The proprietary API allows a game to bypass Direct3D or OpenGL completely and communicate with the hardware. However, a developer can still opt to use Direct3D or OpenGL if they choose to.

ATI is also saying that its method for processing physics on the GPU is superior to both AGEIA's and NVIDIA's. According to the company, those who have already purchased any one of the X1800 or X1900 series can rest assured that their investment will last. Using its propriety API, ATI is able to offload physics processing to any GPU in a dual-GPU setup, regardless of whether or not the cards are in Crossfire mode or that they are even from the same family. This way, those who upgrade later can use their existing X1800 or X1900 cards for discrete physics processing while using the newer card for 3D acceleration duties. As of right now, ATI's method appears to offer the best combined benefits of both AGEIA's discrete processing as well as being able to switch between Crossfire, Crossfire + Physics.

Physics processing has only been a hot topic recently, most notably after AGEIA went public with its announcement of the "first PPU." With both ATi and NVIDIA now announcing that they are strong players in physics processing, AGEIA's original intent of "complementing" existing graphics cards is under heavy fire.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov
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