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Nvidia jumps into the physics processing ring

Nvidia jumps into the physics processing ring

Nvidia announced forthcoming support this morning for middleware software company Havok's new Havok FX software, which will enable Shader Model 3.0-supporting graphics chips to take over some physics processing chores in upcoming games. The idea is that, in addition to regular 3D processing, your GPU will help perform physics-oriented calculations as well, allowing for more accurate and complex behavior of materials and objects.

As Nvidia described it to us, the Havok physics support will emerge via a forthcoming software driver that will apply only to its GeForce 7600- and 7900-series GPUs. Nvidia will make a particular push for the physics capabilities of its dual card SLI mode, in which one card takes over the physics processing. Nvidia didn't name any titles with specific support for the new feature, but Havok software has been the de facto physics framework for games for several years and has no real competition.

On paper this sounds like a great deal, in that it's a free additional feature. Still, we have questions. Because the physics processing comes at the expense of 3D crunching power, you can expect an overall frame-rate drop, the severity of which remains undetermind. We also wonder about the value proposition. If you spend $1,000 or so on a high-end SLI setup, but you set one card to handle the physics, how will that frame rate and complexity compare with, say, one $500 graphics card and a presumably less expensive Ageia PhysX card, a forthcoming product designed exclusively for physics calculating.

What's also interesting is that it seems like using a graphics chip to bolster the in-game physics sounds like a technique that anyone can latch on to. ATI's Radeon X1000-series 3D cards also support Shader Model 3.0, and while Nvidia is first out of the gate with physics support, it doesn't appear that its chips' Havok FX support is an exclusive arrangement. We asked Havok about this over the phone and our contact requested time to put together a written response rather than give us an answer verbally. The follow-up e-mail said simply: "Havok's relationship with Nvidia has been one of technical collaboration, in pursuit of GPU-accelerated physics effects. Havok and Nvidia engineers have worked effectively on the same team, bringing deep understanding of their respective domains together, to help make hardware-accelerated physics a reality for both current and new generation PC configurations."