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A promotional display of the PS4 at launch.

Sony patents hardware-level backwards compatibility

Sony’s new patent would tackle backwards compatibility by letting the CPU imitate other consoles in order to run applications.

Reported by HobbyConsolas, the single-page patent is listed with the Japan Patent Office as #2019-503013, and describes a CPU system that can configure itself to imitate other CPUs. The patent identifies Mark Cerny, lead architect behind the PS4, as one of the inventors of the patent.

But while I can’t really decipher a lot of these technical diagrams, the first flowchart is pretty straightforward. Here’s my summary:

Patent 2019-503013

An application (101) requests a processor ID.  The console’s CPU checks (104) if that application is a “legacy application”. If not, it returns the corresponding ID (106). However, if it detects a legacy application, the system spoofs a processor ID to better fit the application (108). Then the system sends the ID back, and the application runs.

Basically, the hardware’s CPU will adjust itself to meet whatever the software demands – even if it means scaling down.

Without prior planning, it’s difficult to configure a pre-existing CPU to operate like a different CPU. There’s a reason why Nintendo wasn’t happy with the GBA/SNES emulation on the original 3DS. And it’s why the Gamecube emulator Dolphin has been in development since 2003 – emulation is more difficult than we realize. .

But what if you planned for it? What if you stuff the console with enough CPU power and the ability to configure it like older architecture? Sony could frontload the PS5 with the ability to run PS4, PS3, PS2, and even PS1 games from the start.

The PS3’s architecture is especially unique, given that developers like Naughty Dog had to relearn how to code games to optimize it for the hardware.

If the PS5 runs on similar x86 architecture, backwards compatibility with the PS4 would be simple. Plus, Sony would anger their entire userbase by not including backwards compatibility again. The PS4 is close to crossing 100 million units sold; not everybody who purchased one would be excited to start their game collection over again.

Of course, this patent doesn’t confirm anything – only that Sony plans to explore the technology. But we know the PS5 is eventually coming, and backwards compatibility is a sure-fire way to maintain the largest share of the gaming market.