Entertainment has always been instrumental to innovation in computing. Gamers are hungry for newer and faster graphics, sounds and interfaces—and, while the adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” may be meaningful in the context of a word processing package whose successive versions merely tinker with appearances, the same can never be said of products whose raison d’être is to thrill and delight more thoroughly than their predecessors and competitors.
Traditionally, however, high science has pursued a different path to that of home computing and consoles, dealing in supercomputing arrays specifically adapted for the kind of equations and puzzles that only concern the most elite researchers. Judging by this report in the Telegraph, however, an intriguing new avenue of possibility is opening up—using gaming machines to model cutting-edge science. In this case, it’s PlayStation 3 consoles, which are being deployed to model some fiendishly complex physics:
Reprogram a PlayStation and it will perform feats that would be unthinkable on an ordinary PC because the kinds of calculations required to produce the realistic graphics now seen in sophisticated video games are similar to those used by chemists and physicists as they simulate the interactions between particles ranging from the molecular to the astronomical… Prof Gaurav Khanna at the University of Massachusetts has used an array of 16 PS3s to calculate what will happen when two black holes merge.
According to Prof Khanna, the PS3 has unique features that make it suitable for scientific computations, namely, the Cell processor dubbed a “supercomputer-on-a-chip.” And it runs on Linux, “so it does not limit what you can do.”
“A single high-precision simulation can sometimes cost more than 5,000 hours on the TeraGrid supercomputers. For the same cost, you can build your own supercomputer using PS3s. It works just as well, has no long wait times and can be used over and over again, indefinitely,” Prof Khanna says.
It makes perfect sense. The power is cheap partly because, like most consoles, PlayStation 3s are sold at below cost price by Sony in order to create as large a base of users as possible for their (highly profitable) software products. But more importantly, the highest aim of both console and games manufacturers is to create environments for game-playing which are as sophisticated as their users’ capacities for play: virtual worlds as visually detailed, and as accurately modelled in their physics, as reality itself.