When nVIDIA bought Ageia Technologies in February of this year it was clear what nVIDIA had in mind - to make the PhysX API independent of separate hardware and instead offload the work to the GPU. Well, only two months on and nVIDIA have announced that the conversion of the API to CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) is almost complete.
What this means is that owners of GeForce 8 and GeForce 9 cards will be able to download and install driver written in CUDA which will enable PhysX (for PhysX-enabled games - expect this list to grow now nVIDIA is on board) without having to have a separate PPU.
The reason for this additional technology is two-fold. First, it's a great way to sell multiple graphics cards. Here's what nVIDIA’s CEO Jen-Hsun Huang had to say earlier this year:
Our expectation is that this is gonna encourage people to buy even better GPUs. It might - and probably will - encourage people to buy a second GPU for their SLI slot. And for the highest-end gamer, it will encourage them to buy three GPUs. Potentially two for graphics and one for physics, or one for graphics and two for physics.
Secondly, nVIDIA is preparing the defenses against Intel's upcoming Larrabee graphics architecture. Intel has already made it clear that Larrabee will be pushed through channel partners, much as ATi and nVIDIA do already. So, there's a chance that next year we could be seeing companies such as eVGA and Sapphire expand to pushing Intel GPUs too (after all, it has to be remembered that Intel has deep pockets).
I'm surprised by the speed of this porting of PhysX to CUDA and maybe that's an indication of how worried nVIDIA is by Intel's entry into the discrete graphics market. However, the gamer in me comes to two conclusions:
- Until I see benchmarks showing the effect that PhysX implementation has on frame rate in games, I'm going to reserve judgment. After all, if this turns out to be one of those situations where you need three GPUs for it to work then the market for it will be small. However, if the overhead is small, nVIDIA could be onto something here.
- The threat to nVIDIA (and ATi for that matter) from Larrabee is small in the short to medium term. It's going to take gamers a long time to accept a new player on the scene. There's performance and reliability to consider, as well as seeing how well Intel responds to incompatibilities with updated drivers.