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.
Such simulations are usually carried out on a supercomputer, but time on these machines is expensive and in short supply. By comparison, games consoles are cheap and easily available, says New Scientist.
“There is no doubt that the entertainment industry is helping to drive the direction of high performance computational science – exploiting the power available to the masses will lead to many research breakthroughs in the future,” comments Prof Peter Coveney of University College London, who uses supercomputing in chemistry.
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.