Early PCs weren't terribly hot on graphical sophistication. Games had to rely on the main processor carrying out virtually all of the jobs, with the result that none were carried out particularly well.
Things improved when nVidia brought out the GeForce 256. This had the expertise to perform intricate graphics procedures, leaving the PC processor to handle gaming logic and artificial intelligence.
Now, possibly, we are approaching the third stage in the evolution of computer graphics. Billed as the world's first PPU, or PhysX Processing Unit, the Ageia PhysX P1 promises to do for tomorrow's games what the GeForce 256 and its ilk have done for today's. By concentrating on the physics of games – the way objects move and react – a PhysX chip can give programmers the chance to create really sophisticated effects. Shoot a wooden beam, for instance, and splinters don't just fly through the air – they bounce off each other before disappearing.
Unlocking the door to this age of glorious realism seems relatively simple. The Asus PhysX P1 comes with a PhysX chip on board. Find a spare PCI slot and an extra power connector – those gaming fanatics who already have two graphics cards sitting in their PCs could run into problems – and you're ready to tap into the power of PhysX.
The promised land
Except, of course, you'll need some games – and this is where the path to the promised land begins to trail off. All of these sophisticated new techniques sound great in practice, but they don't create themselves. Programmers need to put in the extra code needed to create effects that tap into the PhysX's increased resources.
We received some games – Ubisoft's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is the most recognisable fully playable title, and it's bundled with the Asus. The results were spectacular. Explosions and clouds look far more exciting and spontaneous, although you can expect a slight performance hit when using advanced PhysX functions – even though the card comes with an extra 256MB of memory onboard.
The biggest problem is that, currently, the interactions aren't very meaningful. Ageia envisions a time when players can interact with almost every part of the scenery and where the physics become an important part of the game. However, it's going to need a huge number of these units to sell – plus an army of converted games programmers – before those halcyon days can arrive. And the cards are currently too expensive to trouble the mainstream.