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Physics Engine for Simulation

R. Gaurav Agarwal B. Tech Information Technology R.M.K. Engineering College, Kavaraipettai, Chennai India E-mail: gauravagarwalr@aol.com Ph: 9176343852

Abstract- This paper explores the use of Physics Engine in various fields such as in Development of Video Games, Computer Graphics, Film Making (Animation) and Simulations.

Most Virtual Reality (VR) applications use libraries called physics engine for enforcing physics laws in their virtual worlds. Although the concept of using physics engines is ideal for development of VR applications, in practice it does impose many limitations. For instance, there are many physical laws created by nature, and one physics engine cannot provide all of them.

Each physical law can be implemented differently based on the requirements. Some of them are optimized for fast response whereas others are designed for being precise.

Keywords- Physics Engine, Virtual Reality, 3D Engine


A physics engine is computer software that provides an approximate simulation of certain simple physical systems, such as rigid body dynamics (including collision detection/response), soft body dynamics, and fluid dynamics, of use in the domains of computer graphics, video games and film. Their main uses are in video games (typically as middleware), in which case the simulations are in real-time. The term is sometimes used more generally to describe any software system for simulating physical phenomena, such as high-performance scientific simulation.

There are generally two classes of physics engines, real-time and high-precision. High-precision physics engines require more processing power to calculate very precise physics and are usually used by scientists and computer animated movies. In video games, or other forms of interactive computing, the physics engine simplifies its calculations and lowers its accuracy so that they can be performed in time for the game to respond at an appropriate rate for gameplay. This is referred to as real-time physics. Computer games use physics engines to improve realism.

Hybrid methods are possible that can be created with the help of dedicated hardwares.

A clear illustration of the need for physics engine

can be seen in Fig. 1.

of the need for physics engine can be seen in Fig. 1. Fig. 1 These are
of the need for physics engine can be seen in Fig. 1. Fig. 1 These are

Fig. 1 These are four examples of a physics engine simulating an object falling onto a slope. The examples differ in accuracy of the simulation:

1. No physics

2. Gravity, no collision detection.

3. Gravity and collision detection, no rotation calculations.

4. Gravity, collision detection and rotation calculations.


A Physics Engine is a collection of library files

which implement complex algorithms to identify and provide approximate simulation of certain simple physical systems, such as rigid body dynamics, soft body dynamics and fluid dynamics.

There are many solutions and challenges for a Physics Engine. The different physical systems are as discussed below:

A. Rigid-body dynamics

Rigid body dynamics is the study of the motion of rigid bodies. Unlike particles, which move only in three degrees of freedom, rigid bodies occupy space and have geometrical properties, such as a center of mass, moments of inertia, etc., that characterize motion in six degrees of freedom (three directions plus rotation in three directions). Rigid bodies are also characterized as being non- deformable, as opposed to deformable bodies. As such, rigid body dynamics is used heavily in analyses and computer simulations of physical systems and machinery where rotational motion is important, but material deformation does not have a significant effect on the motion of the system.

The Rigid-body dynamics basically must deal with:

Rigid body linear momentum

Rigid body angular momentum

Angular momentum and torque

B. Soft body dynamics

Soft body dynamics is a field of computer graphics that focuses on visually realistic physical simulations of the motion and properties of deformable objects (or soft bodies). Unlike in simulation of rigid bodies, the shape of soft bodies can change, meaning that the relative distance of two points on the object is not fixed. While the relative distances of points are not fixed, the body is expected to retain its shape to some degree (unlike a fluid). The scope of soft body dynamics is quite broad, including simulation of soft organic materials such as muscle, fat, hair and vegetation, as well as other deformable materials such as clothing and fabric. Generally, these methods only provide visually plausible emulations rather than accurate scientific/engineering simulations, though there is some crossover with scientific methods, particularly in the case of finite element simulations. Several physics engines currently provide software for soft- body simulation. This simulation can be done by using a variety of approaches:

Mass-spring models

Finite element simulation

Energy minimization methods

Shape matching

Rigid-body based deformation

C. Fluid Simulation

Fluid simulation is an increasingly popular tool in computer graphics for generating realistic animations of water, smoke, explosions, and related phenomena. Given some input configuration of fluid and scene geometry, a fluid simulator evolves the motion of the fluid forward in time, making use of the (possibly heavily simplified) Navier-Stokes equations which describe the physics of fluids. In computer graphics, such simulations range in complexity from extremely time-consuming high quality animations for film & visual effects, to simple real-time particle systems used in modern games. Some techniques for liquid simulation is as follows:

Eulerian grid-based methods

Smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH) methods

Vorticity-based methods

Lattice Boltzmann methods


The various challenges for a Physics Engine is handling deformable objects and simulating soft- body dynamics.

deformable objects and simulating soft- body dynamics. Fig. 2 Depicting the compression and expansion phases of

Fig. 2 Depicting the compression and expansion phases of a collision between two solid bodies.

One other difficulty is in calculating Time- of-impact (TOI) problems of real world.

Some of the solutions to these problems are use of Ragdoll physics (a form of procedural animation).

To solve the TOI problems two approaches are suggested.

One solution is based on Brian Mirtich’s concept of Conservative Advancement. The linear convex cast or the Swept Sphere as described by Gino van den Bergen is an specific case of this.

A swept sphere is a 3D object that can be created by pulling, or sweeping, a sphere along a path, leaving a trace that kind of resembles the shape of toothpaste when it comes out of the tube. While sweeping, the radius of the sphere may be changed, and the path does not need to be a straight line. Quite often, though, swept spheres are used in collision detection as an alternative to bounding boxes. In these cases, most of the time the path is a straight line and the radius stays fixed. The object that is created by sweeping a sphere like that is a cylinder with hemispheres, which have the same radius as the cylinder, attached to both ends. Detecting if a point is within this object is computationally quite simple, often easier than doing this with a bounding box.

The other solution is featured based, and calculates the TOI per feature pair. In particular, Redon’s Algebraic Continuous Collision Detection method.


A. Scientific Engines

Physics engines have been commonly used on supercomputers since the 1980s to simulate the flowing of atmospheric air and water, in order to predict weather patterns. This is known as computational fluid dynamics modeling, where particles of air are assigned a force vector, and these combined forces are calculated across vast regions of space to show how the overall weather patterns will circulate. Due to the requirements of speed and high precision, special computer processors known as vector processors were developed to accelerate the calculations.

Generally weather prediction is still an inaccurate science because the resolution of the simulated atmosphere is not detailed enough to match real-world conditions, and small fluctuations not modeled in the simulation can drastically change the predicted results after several days.

Similar fluid dynamic modeling is also commonly used for designing new types of aircraft and watercraft, and can provide engineers the information

that used to be obtained solely from wind tunnel testing.

Tire manufacturers use physics simulations to examine how new tire tread types will perform under wet and dry conditions, using new tire materials of varying flexibility and under different levels of weight loading.

Electronics manufacturers use fluid dynamic modeling to examine how cooling air will flow through the computer case, to locate thermal hotspots that may need additional cooling.

B. Gaming Engines

In most computer games, speed of simulation is more important than accuracy of simulation. Typically most 3D objects in a game are represented by two separate meshes or shapes. One of these meshes is a highly complex and detailed shape which the player sees in the game, for example a vase with elegant curved and looping handles. However, for purposes of speed, a second highly simplified invisible mesh is used to represent the object to the physics engine. To the physics engine, the object may be processed as nothing more than a simple tall cylinder. It is therefore impossible to insert a rod or fire a projectile through the handle holes on the vase, because the physics engine does not know the handles exist and only processes the rough cylindrical shape. The simplified mesh used for physics processing is often referred to as the collision geometry. This may be a bounding box, sphere, or convex hull. Engines that use bounding boxes or bounding spheres as the final shape for collision detection are considered extremely simple. Generally a bounding box is used for broad phase collision detection to narrow down the number of possible collisions before costly mesh on mesh collision detection is done in the narrow phase of collision detection.

// Object-to-object 2D bounding-box collision detector:

short int Sprite_Collide(sprite_ptr object1, sprite_ptr



int left1, left2; int right1, right2; int top1, top2; int bottom1, bottom2;

left1 = object1->x; left2 = object2->x; right1 = object1->x + object1->width; right2 = object2->x + object2->width;

top1 = object1->y; top2 = object2->y; bottom1 = object1->y + object1->height; bottom2 = object2->y + object2->height;

if (bottom1 < top2) return(0); if (top1 > bottom2) return(0); if (right1 < left2) return(0); if (left1 > right2) return(0);



A fairly simple algorithm for 2-dimensional objects is as given above. Below Fig. 3 depicts how a physics engine helps in improving the gaming experience by making it realistic.

in improving the gaming experience by making it realistic. Fig. 3 a) Depicting boxes placed on

Fig. 3 a) Depicting boxes placed on top of planks.

Fig. 3 a) Depicting boxes placed on top of planks. Fig. 3 b) Boxes thrown into

Fig. 3 b) Boxes thrown into air due to an explosion, simulated with help of a Physics Engine.

An alternative to using bounding box-based rigid body physics systems is to use a finite element- based system. In such a system, a 3-dimensional, volumetric tessellation is created of the 3D object. The tessellation results in a number of Finite Elements which represent the object's physical

properties (toughness, plasticity, volume


elements are used by a finite element solver to model the stress within the 3D object. The stress can be used

to drive fracture, deformation and other physical effects with a high degree of realism and uniqueness. As the number of elements in such a system is increased, its ability to model the physical behavior of the object increases. The visual representation of the 3D object is altered by the finite element system through the use of a deformation shader which either runs on the CPU or on the GPU. Finite Element- based systems have been impractical for use in games in the past due to the performance overhead as well as the lack of tools to create finite element representations out of 3D art objects. With the advent of high performance CPUs and GPUs as well as tools to rapidly create the volumetric tessellations, it is now practical to have real-time finite element systems in games. The first game to use a real-time finite elements-based physics system was "Star Wars:

Once constructed, the finite



The Force Unleashed" (TFU) by LucasArts Entertainment. TFU used the newly-created Digital Molecular Matter (DMM) physics engine by Pixelux Entertainment for the deformation and destruction effects of wood, steel, flesh and plants. The deformation and fracture performed by the DMM solver used an algorithm developed by Dr. James O'Brien as a part of his PhD thesis "Graphical Modeling and Animation of Brittle Fracture".

In the real world, physics is always active. There is a constant Brownian motion jitter to all particles in our universe as the forces push back and forth against each other. For a game physics engine, such constant active precision is unnecessary and a waste of the limited CPU power. For example, in the 3D virtual world Second Life, if an object is resting on the floor and the object does not move beyond a certain minimal distance in about two seconds, then the physics calculations are disabled for the object and it becomes frozen in place. It remains frozen until a collision occurs with some other actively physical object, and that reactivates physics processing for the object. This freezing of stable non- moving objects allows the physics engine to conserve processing power and increase the framerate of other objects currently in motion, but can lead to unusual problems such as a huge slow pendulum freezing in place on the upswing, as it slows down and starts to reverse direction. Often this process of deactivating non-moving objects is referred to as "sleeping"; and some physics engines provide the ability to prevent it, ensuring such anomalies never occur, at the expense of always consuming processing power.

The primary limit of physics engine realism is the precision of the numbers representing the position of an object and the forces acting on that object. When the precision is too low, errors can creep into the calculations due to rounding, causing an object to overshoot or undershoot the correct position. These errors are compounded in situations where two free-moving objects are fitted together with a precision that is greater than what the physics engine can calculate. This can lead to an unnatural buildup energy in the object due to the rounding errors, that begins to violently shake and eventually blow the objects apart. Any type of free-moving compound physics object can demonstrate this problem, but it is especially prone to affecting chain links under high tension, and wheeled objects with actively physical bearing surfaces. Higher precision reduces the positional/force errors, but at the cost of greater CPU power needed for the calculations.

C. Other Uses

1) Surgery Simulation:

Surgery simulations are of significant value in medical training as they provide a less costly mean of training new surgeons. The quality of a surgery simulation is defined by how realistic it is in a physical sense. These physics aspects however have little to do the high-level functionalities of the application. In particular, laws are needed for simulating cutting and skin deformation.

laws are needed for simulating cutting and skin deformation. Fig. 4 Class Hierarchy of Physical Objects

Fig. 4 Class Hierarchy of Physical Objects in Surgery Application.

2) Virtual Desktop A BumpTop:

Despite the metaphor, current virtual desktops bear little resemblance to the look or

feel of real world desktops. A workspace in the physical world typically has piles of documents. Binders and other objects arranged in a way that provides considerable subtle information to the owner. Adding realism to the virtual desktop such that certain valuable characteristics of the real world can be applied using physics engines is aim of creating a BumpTop.

applied using physics engines is aim of creating a BumpTop. Fig. 5(a) Typical virtual desktop with

Fig. 5(a) Typical virtual desktop with structured organization. (b) Real desk, where items are casually organized. (c) A BumpTop prototype with piles as the fundamental organizational object, and physical simulation affording casual, potentially more realistic interaction.


A physics processing unit (PPU) is a dedicated microprocessor designed to handle the calculations of physics, especially in the physics engine of video games. Examples of calculations involving a PPU might include rigid body dynamics, soft body dynamics, collision detection, fluid dynamics, hair and clothing simulation, finite element analysis, and fracturing of objects. The idea is that specialized processors offload time consuming tasks from a computer's CPU, much like how a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) performs graphics operations in the main CPU's place.

The first dedicated Physics Processing Unit (PPU) from Ageia (later merged into nVidia), called PhysX, which functions in a similar manner to the Graphic Processing Unit (GPU) in a graphics card - off-loading the majority of the physics processing weight off the CPU and into a dedicated processor. The unit was most effective in accelerating particle systems. Only a small performance improvement was measured for rigid body physics.

Fig. 6 Ageia’s Physics Processing Unit (PPU). GPGPU ("General Purpose processing on Graphics Processing Unit")

Fig. 6 Ageia’s Physics Processing Unit (PPU).

GPGPU ("General Purpose processing on Graphics Processing Unit") is another promising approach for realtime physics engines, including rigid body dynamics. ATI and NVIDIA provide rigid body dynamics on their latest graphics cards.

NVIDIA's GeForce 8 Series supports a GPU-based Newtonian physics acceleration technology named Quantum Effects Technology - which will compete directly with the PhysX PPU hardware. NVIDIA provides an SDK Toolkit for what they call CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) technology that offers both a low and high-level API to the GPU. Few technical details are available about the physics side of it, and it is not yet clear whether this is part of Havok FX SDK, and/or nVidia PhysX SDK, or a completely separate engine.

and/or nVidia PhysX SDK, or a completely separate engine. Fig. 7 NVIDIA’s GeForce 8800Ultra. ATI &

Fig. 7 NVIDIA’s GeForce 8800Ultra.

ATI & AMD offer a similar SDK for their ATI-based GPUs and that SDK and technology is called CTM (Close to Metal) which provides a thin

hardware interface. AMD has also announced the AMD Stream Processor product line which combines a CPU and GPU technology on one chip.


A Physics Engine can be used to solve certain real-world problems where collision can be detected and provide a response to it. These engines can thereby, be used to detect collisions well in advance using a complex set of inputs. Hence, the simulation can be used for providing a mechanism to trigger a response for the possible collision.


[1] Collision Detection with Swept Spheres and Ellipsoids by Jorrit Rouwé from

[2] Continuous Collision Detection and Physics by Erwin Coumans, Sony Computer Entertainment. [3] http://www.howstuffworks.com/ [4] Role of Extensible Physics Engine in Surgery Simulations by Saeid Nourian, Xiaojun Shen and Nicolas D. Georganas. [5] Keepin’ It Real: Pushing the Desktop Metaphor with Physics, Piles and the Pen by Anand Agarwala and Ravin Balakrishnan. [6] www.wikipedia.com [7] http://www.gamedev.net/