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Battery-free Game Boy runs forever

Button pressing and solar energy power the retro gaming device

A hand-held video game console allowing indefinite gameplay might be a parent’s worst nightmare.

But this Game Boy is not just a toy. It’s a powerful proof-of-concept, developed by researchers at Northwestern University and the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, that pushes the boundaries of battery-free intermittent computing into the realm of fun and interaction. It is also another step toward sustainable technology.

Josiah Hester
Josiah Hester

“It’s the first battery-free interactive device that harvests energy from user actions,” said Northwestern’s Josiah Hester, who co-led the research. “When you press a button, the device converts that energy into something that powers your gaming.”

“Sustainable gaming will become a reality, and we made a major step in that direction — by getting rid of the battery completely,” said TU Delft’s Przemyslaw Pawelczak, who co-led the research with Hester. “With our platform, we want to make a statement that it is possible to make a sustainable gaming system that brings fun and joy to the user.”

The teams will present the research virtually at UbiComp 2020, a major conference within the field of interactive systems, on Sept. 15.

Hester is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. Pawelczak is an assistant professor in the Embedded Software Lab at TU Delft. Their team includes Jasper de Winkel and Vito Kortbeek, both Ph.D. candidates at TU Delft.

As a first investigative step towards consumer applications, the researchers have created a batteryless and failure-resilient clone of the 8-bit Nintendo Game Boy, one of the most popular hand-held gaming consoles of all-time. Their energy aware gaming platform (ENGAGE) has the size and form factor of the original Game Boy, while being equipped with a set of solar panels attached to the front of the chassis. Button presses by the user are a second source of energy. Most importantly, it impersonates the Game Boy processor. Although this solution requires a lot of computational power, and therefore energy, it allows any popular retro game to be played straight from its original cartridge.

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Sustainable gaming will become a reality, and we made a major step in that direction — by getting rid of the battery completely.

Przemyslaw Pawelczak
TU Delft

To ensure an acceptable duration of gameplay between power failures, the researchers had to design the system hardware and software from the ground up to be energy aware as well as very energy efficient. They also developed a new technique of storing the system state in non-volatile memory, minimizing overhead and allowing quick restoration when power returns. No more need for save games as seen in traditional platforms, as the player can now continue gameplay from the exact point of the device fully losing power – even if it is mid-jump in a platform game such as Super Mario Land. 

On a not too cloudy day, and for games that require at least moderate amounts of clicking, gameplay interruptions typically last less than one second for every ten seconds of gameplay. The researchers find this to be a playable scenario for some games – including Chess, Solitaire and Tetris – but certainly not yet for all (action) games. When light conditions worsen, so does user experience. User immersion is also compromised as the games lack sound.

There is still a long way to go before state-of-the-art 21st century handheld game consoles will become battery-free. The ENGAGE platform is only a first step in this direction. Beyond being a fun toy, it has mainly been developed to raise awareness as, next to sound, there are many other open issues when applying intermittent computing to the domain of continuous user attention and user interaction. The platform can also serve as a tool for studying interactive behaviour of people with intermittent systems. But most of all it has been developed in an effort to further reduce our society’s reliance on batteries. Batteries are costly, environmentally hazardous and they must eventually be replaced to avoid that the entire device ends up at the landfill. Whereas gaming reduces people’s stress and boredom, intermittent computing helps reduce gaming’s environmental impact.

— By Merel Engelsman

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