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PS3 Gets Physical with Nvidia

This afternoon Nvidia said that it has signed a "tools and middleware" license agreement with SCEI, bringing PhysX back to the PlayStation 3 console.

If there was one thing Sony did right in regards to the PlayStation 3, it was to develop the console with a PC in mind. While many console owners and PC enthusiasts will undoubtedly flame that very comment, there's a definite certainty that it is more PC-like than its counterparts: the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft's Xbox 360. With Sony's Cell multiprocesor and Nvidia's G70-based GPU (the RSX) thrown under the hood, the console's removable hard drive and support for mouse and keyboard user input gives the console an overall PC quality. Heck, gamers can even install Linux on the console.

With that in mind, Nvidia announced today that it has signed a deal with Sony Computer Entertainment Inc that gives PlayStation 3 developers access to Nvidia's PhysX software development kit (SDK). According to the company, the kit is now available as a free download on the SCEI Developer Network and consists of a full-featured API and "robust" physics engine. Now developers, level designers, and artists have complete creative control over character and object physical interactions, as the SDK allows them to author and preview the physics effects in real time.

“NVIDIA is proud to support PLAYSTATION 3 as an approved middleware provider,” said Tony Tamasi, senior vice president of content and technology at NVIDIA. “Games developed for the PLAYSTATION 3 using PhysX technology offer a more realistic and lifelike interaction between the games characters and other objects within the game. We look forward to the new games that will redefine reality for a new generation of gamers.”

Originally developed by Ageia as a Physics Processing Unit and as the NovodeX SDK, the physics middleware eventually became a part of Nvidia's overall product offering when the company acquired Ageia back in February 2008. Games supporting hardware accelerated PhysX either use a PhysX PPU or a CUDA-enabled GeForce GPU. Using this process, physics processing thus shifts away from the CPU, allowing for faster framerates and realistic interaction with environments.

With that said, there was one thing about today's announcement that left us a little confused. According to Nvidia, the company released drivers that allowed the GeForce 8 series and higher to implement PhysX processing back in August 2008. However, because the PlayStation 3's RSX GPU is based on the G70 architecture (GeForce 7800), GPU support for PhysX isn't even possible on the console. So, Nvidia, what gives? How will PhysX work on the PlayStation 3?

The answer stems back to 2006, when AGEIA originally released the PhysX SDK for the PlayStation 3, version 2.4, specifically optimized for the Cell processor. The company said that it offloaded several components of the PhysX pipeline from the PlayStation PPU (Power Processor Unit) to the SPUs (Synergistic Processing Units), generating a 50 percent reduction in maximum PPU load. That indeed is probably what's going on now with the new Nvidia PhysX SDK release: the middleware is utilizing the Cell processor, not the RSX GPU.

"PhysX on PS3 uses the CPU in PS3 and SPU which are the cores of  the cell. We do not use the NVIDIA GPU in the PS3 for PhysX acceleration," said a spokesman from Nvidia in an email to Tom's. "PhysX is also supported on many platforms which do not use GeForce GPUs for acceleration. For example, PhysX is available on the iphone--running on the arm processor core. This versatility is what is driving PhysX adoption across multiple platforms, including consoles and PCs."

So with all this techno-babble, what does this mean for PlayStation 3 gamers? It means virtual game worlds come to life in a very realistic way: trees bend in the wind, water flows with body and force, spent shells roll across the floor as players move over them in a frantic run. For developers taking advantage of the PhysX SDK, it's all created in the name of realism, to pull gamers into a suspended reality where anything is possible, only limited by the imagination of the developers.