A Story About Two Tiny, Fuzzy Photos Of A ‘PlayStation 5 Prototype’

A Story About Two Tiny, Fuzzy Photos Of A ‘PlayStation 5 Prototype’

Short of the annual iPhone, few future devices get fans chatting like the next generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft. Both companies have teased what’s next recently — with Sony revealing some details about the PlayStation 5 in April, and Microsoft showing off a flashy video teasing so-called Project Scarlett at E3 in June. Both consoles are expected to launch by the summer of 2020. In the absence of really robust information, speculation and rumours have proliferated on gamer forums, but why leave it to the forums when Gizmodo has a tipster blowing up our inbox claiming to have access to advance versions of both consoles — and showing us what they claim is photographic proof?

Our tipster, who claims to be working on a title for both consoles, sent us a series of messages from June through August to our SecureDrop. The first tip came in response to a nerdy theory we published following Microsoft’s E3 briefing.

While Microsoft announced the basic specs for Project Scarlett, it left us confused as to why we had to wait another year for the console’s release. I posited that one reason the console wouldn’t arrive until 2020 was that AMD was slow to get ray tracing support onto Navi, its next-generation graphics platform that will be the basis for both Sony and Microsoft’s future consoles. In the message, the tipster said, “Correct that AMD Navi v late.”

So I did some poking around because the tipster made curious claims about the speed of the devices, the quality of their graphics, and even what kind of cameras they’d use for streaming. We typically wouldn’t run a story with a source who won’t confirm their identity. But, again, this one had something other tipsters do not: a photograph of a device. And not just any photo. Their photo looks just like official Sony illustrations pulled from a registry on a government website. The illustrations are rumoured to be mockups of a pre-production PS5, and they circulated widely after their discovery in August. Our tipster sent us the photo in June. (In the interest of protecting our tipster, we won’t post the photos here.)

The timing is crucial here because, conceivably, some jackass could have found the design illustrations of the PS5, and by some sorcery (3D printing, Photoshop) created a model to trick us. Our photo predates the circulation of the registration images.

On May 25, 2019, the law firm Kasznar Leonardos registered an industrial design in Brazil (login required) in the interest of its client, Sony Interactive. Published on August 13, that registration referenced a Japanese industrial design registration filed back on November 30, 2018. The Japanese registration is sealed with a note on the documentation claiming it is a secret design and images cannot be displayed.

The Brazilian registration (PDF here) features nine views of a funky device that appears to be some kind of computer, console, or digital media player. Figures 1.1 through 1.3 are labelled “Perspective” while Figures 1.4 through 1.9 are labelled as “Views” of the device from the front, back, sides, top and bottom. For brevity’s sake, we’ll describe Figure 1.1 as it gives the clearest portrait of the device.

Graphic: Instituto Nacional da Propriedade Industria

In Figure 1.1, the device faces forward at an angle. You see the sizeable V-like divot that dominates the device’s design, as well as vents embedded in the sides of the divot. Five gill-like vents slash into the left and right sides of the device. On the front panel, there appear to be three small buttons or switches next to two small LEDs. They’re directly above what looks like a slot for discs. To the right of this arrangement is a rectangular port, and next to it, just off-centre, are five rectangular holes that all resemble USB-A ports. A large circle that could be anything from a status light to a power button is directly above the ports.

Dutch tech site LetsGoDigital ran a package about the Brazilian industrial design registration approximately a week after it was published complete with flashy renderings of the device. They take quite a few liberties with elements that could be ports, buttons, LEDs, or all three. The site theorised that the device was likely either the PS5 or a developer console for the PS5, and the polished renders imagine the device as a finished product complete with glowing accent lighting.

A render commissioned by LetsGoDigital and based on illustrations found in a Brazilian industrial design registration filed by Sony. (Image: LetsGoDigital)

LetsGoDigital’s theory was seemingly confirmed when a British game developer tweeted that the illustrations in the filing matched a PS5 developer console and that he had some at his office. Within hours, his tweet and his entire Twitter account vanished, proof to some that his words were the truth.

Developer consoles tend to be visually dramatic. They prioritise performance, so they’re usually substantial, with ventilation and room for airflow. Yet they’re still an opportunity for a branding exercise. Companies won’t spend the kind of time or money on the look of a dev console as they will on the final product — but there can be an effort.

Dev kits can look like a typical PC tower, a locked-down metal box, or even a plasticky neon green gadget. One version of the PS4’s developer console looked like a bulky disc player from the early 2000s. These consoles rarely look like the cool glowing machine in LetsGoDigital’s snazzy renders, but they also infrequently use off the shelf cases.

The best photo our tipster sent isn’t much — a 33.5Kb gif that is just 238 pixels by 144 pixels. It’s been cropped and downgraded as if to remove any possible identifying details. Suffice it to say that from what we can see, the details in the photo appear identical to the registration illustrations.

The photo is taken from above at an angle as if the photographer held the camera at waist height and shot the device while standing right next to it. So the perspective is skewed, and only a portion of the device is visible. There’s a cord laying across part of the device. What immediately catches your eye is that this device has a two-tone colour job, much like PS4 developer boxes before. Much of what we see is covered in a shiny silver finish that reflects the garish overhead lights illuminating it. The parts not covered in the silver finish are covered in black plastic. The portion visible includes those five gill-like vents and that big V-shaped divot.

A second image sent by the tipster is even less legible and resembles a large black blob. The tipster said it was a photo processed with reduced colour depth and resolution to remove reflections. The resulting file is another tiny gif. The tipster advised adjusting the brightness or gamma of the image. Doing so reveals a terribly pixelated image. The words “PROTOTYPE 1 NOT FOR SALE” are visible.

Below that, there appears to be a small LED labelled “STATUS 2.” Directly beside it are three buttons or knobs. The first is labelled “STANDBY.” The labelling for the other two buttons or knobs is less legible. The one beside “STANDBY” starts with “RE.” So it possibly says “RESET” or “RECORD.” The third starts with an “EJE” and likely, spells “EJECT.” Directly below this grouping of three is what appears to be a slot for a DVD or Blu-ray.

Everything the tipster sent us appears to match the illustrations in the Brazilian filing except that the illustrations, by their nature as figures, don’t have any text or labelling.

Our tipster claims it’s called “Prospero.”

According to our tipster, earlier PS5 prototypes have been in the hands of developers since 2018, but Prospero, the current dev console, was first delivered to developers early this winter.

The console shares its name with the central character of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the play, Prospero is a moody wizard supported by characters like the magic spirit Ariel, and the kind nobleman Gonzalo. That’s curious because Ariel and Gonzalo aren’t just characters in The Tempest: They’re also the codenames for unreleased AMD products that were discovered by geeks and are thought to be guts for next-gen consoles.

The Ariel and Gonzalo rumours started in January 2019, months before our tipster reached out. @TUM_APISAK, a data miner known for uncovering many clues about future Intel and AMD products in publicly available databases, tweeted an image that is complete nonsense unless you’re deep into the same community of data miners and processor fans.

After being decoded by a tool created by AMD Reddit mod Eris_Floralia, the series of numbers and letters appeared to suggest that AMD had a new semi-custom chip intended for a gaming console. AMD typically calls these chips, which have both a computer processor and graphics processor an Accelerated Processing Unit, or APU. APUs can be found in laptops or desktops, but this semi-custom one appears to be intended for a gaming platform. The semi-custom chip was codenamed Gonzalo.

Separately, serial leaker @KOMACHI_ENSAKA tweeted another string of numbers and letters meant to represent a semi-custom chip with the codename Ariel.

Then in August, Komachi fired off another tweet that seemed to refer to a GPU called Oberon. That happens to also be the name of the fairy king in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This also could be a series of hoaxes by some Shakespeare fans or Komachi and Apisak could be misinformed. Or it could be that someone at Sony or AMD really likes Shakespeare’s comedies.

Besides a name and a picture, our tipster also had a lot to say about the internal components found in Prospero and its Microsoft counterpart, Project Scarlett. Our tipster communicated in an oblique fashion that left their messages more open to interpretation than we generally like. One thing was clear: the future consoles will have the “greatest compute jump in any console,” they said. We’ve had a good look at the underlying architecture for the AMD processor already, so that’s not terribly surprising.

In terms of graphics performance, our tipster offered fuzzy details about how each console would handle ray tracing differently, but frankly, the statements were too hard to parse, so we won’t reprint them here.

Our tipster’s most interesting series of claims concerned the cameras included with the PS5 prototype and Project Scarlett. Thanks to Twitch, YouTube and even Microsoft’s Mixer, video game streaming is a huge business right now. Lots and lots of people make money by streaming video of themselves playing games, sometimes for audiences of thousands of people. Consequently, high-quality camera support for consoles is practically required if Sony and Microsoft want to lure streamers to their platforms.

The PS4 and Xbox One both have streaming support, but it is not nearly as robust as the streaming solutions found on PC. It’s hard for a single device to handle rendering a game while also dealing with recording and transmitting a stream. The result is that streaming on the PS4 and Xbox One is barebones. In the case of PC gaming, the streaming setup typically involves either multiple computers or one quite powerful machine. Thus streamers have access to all kinds of effects, like overlays that put masks on their faces.

According to our tipster, Microsoft will make the camera a huge priority, while the Prospero kit uses older camera technology. (It’s worth noting that what’s in a development kit doesn’t necessarily reflect what ships in a final product.)

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s camera is allegedly capable of 4K resolution with just a two-frame latency between what is recorded and what appears on a stream. (The current Microsoft Kinect camera gets about 8ms to 10ms of latency.) The tipster claims Microsoft is showing off the capabilities of the camera using a Snapchat-like demo that changes with the in-game lighting.

This wouldn’t be a surprising move for Microsoft. The company attempted to make the camera a big part of the Xbox One. A pricey Kinect camera came bundled with every console. At the time, consumers were furious about paying for a camera that seemed unnecessary.

The streaming business has changed that, and Microsoft has been quick to recognise the value of a streaming platform to building back its market share in console gaming. The company has made considerable investments in its Twitch competitor, Mixer. Earlier this year, it lured popular Twitch streamer, Ninja, to the platform, and there have been reports of it paying streamers upwards of a $1.5 million to stream on Mixer.

A really good camera just makes sense.

Neither the PlayStation 5 nor Project Scarlett will be available until next year, so it’s likely that whatever developers are futzing with in their keycard-locked dungeons doesn’t reflect the full reality of what we’ll see in a final console. Until then, the fun will be trying to anticipate the future based on what little bits leak out into the world from behind the hermetic seal of secrecy — even if it happens to come in the form of some cryptic hints and low-res images. We’ll be left to guess if any of its true. But at least some of what we hear must be, right?

Microsoft and AMD declined to comment. Sony did not respond to requests for comment.