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Nvidia to acquire Ageia for the PhysX chip

As industry works on blending PC and graphics chips, Nvidia plans to beef up its graphics technology by integrating powerful PhysX chip into its GeForce graphics hardware.

Updated Tuesday 4:30pm to correct statements about how PhysX works with gaming consoles.

Nvidia snapped up Ageia on Monday, with plans to add Ageia's PhysX technology to its GeForce graphics chips.

Ageia makes a chip called PhysX that makes killing and blowing stuff up with a Playstation controller all that more lifelike, essential for satisfying a generation of video gamers who are apparently well-acquainted with what really happens when you hit a fuel truck with an RPG. In all seriousness, the processing power that's required to simulate events like explosions and smoke or fog is immense, so much so that a standalone chip for just that purpose was required to really drive the experience home.

The PhysX chip can be found in all three of the modern gaming consoles--Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and the Wii--as well as in add-in cards for PC gaming. Developers have to write their games with the processor in mind to unlock the performance, and Over 140 titles are available for consoles and PCs that support the PhysX technology. UPDATED 2/5, 4:30pm - After Ageia didn't return my call I was able to track down Nvidia to confirm that the commenters are correct, the PhysX chips are only associated with PCs. A software developer's kit is available for the consoles that apparently lets developers get the performance of the PhysX technology without the chip present. I have to say, I still don't get exactly how that works.

Ageia describes the role of the PhysX processor as part of the "Gaming Power Triangle," which consists of the CPU, a GPU from either Nvidia or AMD's ATI, and the PhysX "physics processing unit." "The third leg of the triangle...'moves and interacts' to take gaming to the next level with pervasive dynamic motion and interaction," according to Ageia's Web site.

Within the next couple of years, however, that triangle will collapse. Intel, AMD, and Nvidia are all working on chips that aim to marry the benefits of graphics processing--extremely fast processing of repetitive tasks--with the flexibility of general-purpose PC processors. Intel's Larrabee project, AMD's Fusion project, and Nvidia's CUDA development are early steps toward that goal.

And now Nvidia plans to integrate the PhysX technology into one of its GeForce graphics chips "as soon as possible," according to Derek Perez of Nvidia. This is a long-standing trend in chip design, where chips that used to occupy standalone roles for reasons of cost or complexity--like PhysX--wind up squeezing their way onto the main processor. You can thank Gordon Moore for that.