When you hear the word “processor,” you probably think Intel or AMD, maybe ATI or NVIDIA. Their products have been a staple in PCs for as long as most of us can remember. A few years back, a little company called Ageia had high hopes of complementing the CPU and GPU with a third chip for your computer: the PPU. This physics processing unit would be used solely for what its name implied, in order to take some of that load off of the CPU in games and other applications. With their new PhysX engine, game physics were poised to reach an unprecedented level of realism, thanks to hardware acceleration. It happened for graphics, so why not physics, too, right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, the dedicated PPU garnered very little support from developers; they didn’t want to spend the extra time and money to make use of something that practically nobody had in their PCs. Nor did gamers want to buy extra hardware when there were no games to use it with. Everyone seemed to be content with what could be done on the CPU through software like Havok. On top of that catch-22, industry heavy-hitters ATI and NVIDIA soon announced their own hardware physics solutions. The obstacles Ageia faced were simply too much to overcome, and their PPU failed to take off.
All of that changed in 2008, when NVIDIA decided to buy out Ageia and inherited PhysX. They ditched the standalone PPU idea, instead adapting the technology to use GPU power to fuel PhysX effects. Now, any GeForce 8-series and above could be utilized to accommodate physics effects. Not to mention, if you have an SLI-capable motherboard, you can even dedicate an extra video card you have lying around to performing PPU operations.
Many games have used the PhysX engine in the past few years, but now we’re beginning to see AAA title releases that take advantage of PhysX hardware acceleration. Ageia dreamed of such a day, but it simply would not have been possible without the backing of a major company with a pre-established name and market share. Rocksteady Studios worked closely with NVIDIA to bring PhysX effects to their newest game, Batman: Arkham Asylum. We’ll be taking a closer look at some of the fancy new visuals that are exclusive to the PC version, as well as a few performance tests.