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Kaboom! Video Games Get Physical

Physicists inject a dose of reality into screen simulations.

Fire up most video games and you enter a parallel universe where the laws of physics do not apply. Trajectories, collisions, explosions all behave differently than they do here on Earth. While graphics resolution and sound quality have dramatically improved in recent years, the underlying physics have remained primitive.

That’s about to change. In their continuing quest for greater realism, game makers are upgrading and designing new 3-D simulation games by injecting a heavy dose of real-world physics. “Game developers always need to find new things to innovate and for many today that means better physics,” notes Chris Hecker, a technical developer at Definition Six, a Seattle-based game company who has organized talks on physics at developers’ conventions.

With more computer power and proper skills, developers are able to design games in which the underlying properties of many game objects-not just a few-conform to the laws of physics. Weapons, bridges and vehicles need no longer follow scripted patterns. Instead, objects can be programmed with an underlying set of rules that let them fall, stack, slide and sink in an intuitive manner, displaying the variety we experience in everyday life. For players of motor racing, flight simulations, and all manner of action and shoot-em-up games, this means far more lifelike and unpredictable explosions, collapses and collisions. Game worlds will now be enhanced with rippling waves, pouring rain, sinewy smoke and flickering fires.

Thanks to enhanced game physics, players will be able to smash through windows, pick up manhole covers and feel the heft and weight of different weapons. They will experience massive explosions where particles and shrapnel spin wildly out of control, exerting a force on everything in their course of flight. This will be a vast improvement, developers say, over today’s typical action game, in which an explosion may result in a static cartoon graphic that says “Kaboom.”

Some predict that creating these complex, algorithm-driven, 3-D simulations will require an overhaul in the way games are designed. Game companies may find they need to form teams of physics- and math-savvy programmers. Irving, Texasbased Motorsims, for example, has hired a PhD in vehicle collision and handling
dynamics along with a former principal engineer in aerospace guidance from Boeing to work on its new racing games.

Another strategy is to license a physics game engine produced by one of several new companies, such as Telekinesys in Dublin and Ipion in Munich. One company -two-year-old MathEngine-employs 50 physicists, mathematicians and computer programmers. These experts, located at the company’s headquarters in Oxford, England, and five other facilities around the world, work as a virtual team to create physics engines. Will Osborn, who studied theoretical physics at Cambridge University and now directs Math-Engine’s research group, explains his new profession’s appeal: “Instead of wondering where my research funding is going to come from every year, I get to work on a whole range of physics-aerodynamics, rigid body dynamics, fluid dynamics, and graphic and rendering techniques.”

MathEngine’s physics engine is one of several tools sanctioned for the next generation Sony Playstation game console. The software enables developers to add complex physical behavior to real-time, 3-D environments without having to derive the complicated mathematics from scratch. By using it, game makers are able to add interactive and dynamic sequences in hours rather than days or weeks. Simple visual demos on the company Web site show animations of swirling leaves and other examples of complex physics that the MathEngine kit makes easy (

You’d think game developers would welcome these new tools with open arms. But in fact, some have mixed feelings. Ken Perlin, founder of New York’s Improv Technologies and creator of a new “cartoon physics” tool for developers, says the key element for a successful game is that the characters are believable-which is not the same as being realistic. Computer game design has never been about modeling reality, insists Noah Falstein, founder of The Inspiracy, a game consulting firm in Greenbrae, Calif. Instead, he says, it has mostly been about creating illusions of reality:” Witness the popularity of the Star Wars Pod Racer games-George Lucas is a genius at creating a fantasy that feels right,’ despite gross violations of physical laws.”

But just as earlier advances in computing hardware ratcheted up game players’ expectations for graphic precision and audio quality, the movement toward realistic physics has too much momentum to stop.”Now that the computational power of PCs and game machines is so much more advanced, the element of physics in every game is going to keep on increasing,” says Michael Valdez, a game developer at Looking Glass Studios in Cambridge, Mass., who came to games via the study of aeronautics at MIT and work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

With the recent uproar over video game violence, of course, enhanced realism may not be exactly what society’s doctors order. But the consumers of games will be the ones whose tastes prevail-and those consumers will probably develop a taste for the “new physics” just as soon as it comes online.

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