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The first battery-free Game Boy wants to power a gaming revolution – CNET

Jasper de Winkel has turned his apartment into a factory.

Hunched over a table in his study, de Winkel has spent the last few months with a hot air gun in one hand and fine-tip tweezers in the other. Microscopic components litter his benchtop. With surgical precision, he delicately places them on a circuit board, periodically checking his progress with a magnifying glass. For a factory, it’s exceptionally clean. It has to be. His house, in the sleepy Dutch town of Delft, about 30 miles southwest of Amsterdam, is the birthplace of a world first.

The battery-free Game Boy. A video game console powered by a combination of energy from the sun and button-mashing during gameplay. 

It’s an orange brick about the size of a paperback novel but weighs only half as much as the original Nintendo Game Boy released in 1989. De Winkel, a computer scientist at Delft University of Technology, has been working on building the device for about a year. He calls it his “baby.”

Officially it’s dubbed the “Engage” (no relation to Nokia’s failed console, I’m told) but the inspiration is obvious. Beside the absence of a battery slot on the back, the device looks exactly like Nintendo’s revolutionary handheld. “It was critical from the start of the project that we maintain the feel of a Game Boy,” de Winkel says.

De Winkel has been building and sending Engage devices, in a variety of colors, to his collaborators

Northwestern University

The “we” de Winkel refers to is an accomplished team of computer scientists including Josiah Hester, from Northwestern University in the US, plus Przemysław Pawełczak and Vito Kortbeek from TU Delft. They’re set to unveil their Game Boy for the first time on Sept. 12, during the 2020 virtual UbiComp, an annual conference run by the Association for Computing Machinery.

The handheld device is a “proof by demonstration” that battery-free mobile gaming is possible. It’s not a Nintendo product, but it’s also not just a simple novelty for researchers, either. Like the original Game Boy, it’s designed to spark a revolution. Hester and Pawełczak, who lead the project, have been studying energy harvesting and “intermittent computing” devices for years. The Engage is the result of researching and refining this work, and the system is a state-of-the-art, technical marvel. 

The choice to redesign the Game Boy is a deliberate one, a considered plot to raise awareness of the intermittent computing field that has so far been confined to the “hardcore programming” crowd and “geeks to the max,” according to Pawełczak. But there’s more at stake than just novelty, awareness or convenience. An even bigger issue looms over the team’s work: global heating and the ecological impacts of modern technology. 

The system, Hester hopes, will inspire communities from game developers to consumers to radically rethink how the world approaches sustainability and climate change.

No precedent

“You know what would be cool? If we could make a Game Boy.”

That was the dream Josiah Hester offered Jasper de Winkel during a brainstorming session in late 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit. Even then, de Winkel notes, it sounded a little crazy. His first thought was “can we even do that?” The team enlisted the help of Vito Kortbeek, a Ph.D. student under Pawełczak at TU Delft, to help with software development.

The Engage is not a one-to-one re-creation of the Game Boy, a console first released by Japanese gaming giant Nintendo 31 years ago. It’s a redesign, built from the ground up with modern computing techniques, driven by a Game Boy emulator. 

“We’re impersonating the Game Boy,” says Hester. He explains that the device has been created by coupling existing Game Boy emulation techniques with the latest in energy harvesting and intermittent-computing technology. “This could not have been possible even four or five years ago,” he says.

Nintendo didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Tetris was bundled with the original Game Boy in America.

NintendoComplete/YouTube

Intermittent computing, an emerging field of computer science and engineering, drives the design principles behind the Engage. Unlike batteries, which draw energy until they need to be replaced, intermittent-computing devices use novel energy-harvesting techniques that provide small amounts of power, resulting in devices that only remain ON for seconds, rather than hours. Pawełczak says “the whole idea of intermittent computing stems from the fact we should ditch batteries completely.” 

This is the key to the Engage. 

It’s a fully operational Game Boy and can play any of the console’s titles, from Tetris to Super Mario Land. It harvests energy from five small rows of solar panels on its face and from button presses made by the user. In its present state, that’s enough to power the Engage for around 10 seconds, depending on the game. Then, losing power, it switches off. A few quick button mashes restore gameplay in less than a second. 

Such constant, intermittent failures won’t please players in 2020, but the Engage isn’t a device created for sale. It’s a research and development tool, proof that battery-free devices can be interactive and encourage user interaction. Previous devices that didn’t need batteries, such as eye-tracking glasses and a cellphone that can make a phone call, are impressive, but they’re single-use cases. 

“We’re really making a huge leap towards useful and usable systems that are built upon this foundation of intermittent computing,” says Pawełczak. The ultimate goal: Build a device where the time between failure and restoration is so small it’s no longer noticeable to the player. 

To get there, the team has had to rethink everything it knows about the Game Boy.

The team at TU Delft, L-R: de Winkel, Pawełczak, Kortbeek

James Broadhead

No batteries

The Game Boy started a revolution when it debuted in 1989, leading to three decades of dominance in the handheld console market for Nintendo.

By today’s standards, the original Game Boy, designed by Nintendo legend Gunpei Yokoi, is primitive and unsightly, but it upholds Nintendo’s long-standing ethos: clever, cheap design over technical wizardry. 

Packaged in the US with eternally popular tile-matching game Tetris as a launch title, the Game Boy sold 1 million units during its first Christmas and crushed the Atari Lynx and Sega’s Game Gear, its technically superior opposition. Where the Lynx and Game Gear zigged, the Game Boy zagged. By focusing on games rather than flashy, energy-hungry graphics, it excelled in one particular realm: battery life. 

Hester grew up with a Game Boy in hand. As a child of the ’90s, his first experience came with the Game Boy Color, an updated, trimmed-down version of the console released in 1998. He speaks of long family road trips when he’d play “a ton of Tetris” and Godzilla, an obscure puzzle platformer from ’91 featuring the Japanese film icon. But not all of his memories are fond ones.

Though the battery life for the Game Boy was superior to that of the Lynx or the Game Gear, it never seemed to last the 15 hours it was rated for. Long road trips required players like Hester to carry a packet of spares. “We had a box of AA batteries in the car, just in case,” he recalls. He notes the frustration of seeing the Game Boy screen go dim and the music cut out when the batteries died — an apocalyptic scenario for an 8-year-old on a road trip. Sometimes, all his progress in Godzilla would be lost.

The Engage is designed to combat the inconvenience and impermanence of batteries. Replacing them constantly. Switching them out. Throwing them away. The modern battery isn’t just a burden for game consoles, either. All modern devices, from iPhones to smartwatches, are reliant on rechargeable batteries. We replace our phones every year or so, dumping old for new; our classic gaming consoles gather dust in attics and basements while their capacitors degrade and erode.

Hester says part of the mission of the Engage is to realize a world of long-lasting, potentially eternal devices. If some unforeseen apocalypse were to steamroll humanity (something that’s felt increasingly likely in this torrid year), and you pulled an Engage from the rubble, it would remain operational. All you’d need to do is take it out in the sun or start mashing the A and B buttons to resurrect it.

“When the world ends, it’ll still be around and someone can see what our society was like,” Hester jokes. 

The birthplace of the battery-free Game Boy, the Engage.

Jasper de Winkel

No saves

Energy-harvesting techniques aren’t yet efficient enough to prevent intermittent failures, presenting a huge problem for any would-be gaming systems: every time the console switches off, a player’s progress is lost. To combat this, the team had to engineer a new layer of software for saving games (“checkpointing”), allowing all data to be saved and restored in milliseconds. 

“We’re basically saving really, really quickly and restoring from our saved game really, really fast without anyone seeing,” says Hester.

That’s where Vito Kortbeek comes in.

Kortbeek, a Ph.D. student at TU Delft, joined the project to tackle the save-game challenge. Traditional save systems found in cartridges rely on battery power and RAM to keep track of progress. When the batteries die, the checkpoints are gone for good. “If we want to make a checkpoint, we have to shove it somewhere where it’s not lost when power is lost,” he says.

During play on the Engage, data from the Game Boy emulator is constantly being modified and stored and written into the memory, too, but it’s a specialized type of memory that retains its state even after power loss.

But the system is temperamental and dynamic, varying by game. Tetris, for instance, remains powered for longer than Super Mario Land. Kortbeek had to engineer a way to tell the system when to checkpoint regardless of the game, ensuring it would save progress just before power was lost. He also needed to make sure it would come back from power failure as if nothing at all had happened. 

His answer was a new checkpointing technique dubbed “MPatch.” When the system detects low energy levels, it creates a checkpoint. However, to speed things up, it only stores any data that has been changed from the previous checkpoint as a “patch.” These patches are stored sequentially in the system. Before a power failure occurs, a final checkpoint is created. 

I hope Johannes Vermeer will forgive me for this.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

It sounds complex — and it is — but think of the processing like this: You’ve drawn two copies of the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring stored in different museums. One you don’t touch, the other you stick a moustache and some glasses on. Then a huge fire rips through the second museum, but moments before that, you copy just the moustache and glasses. 

When you go to restore the second version, you don’t paint a brand new Girl with a Pearl Earring, you just copy the surviving painting and stick the moustache and glasses on it. But this restoration happens so fast it’s practically imperceptible, as if it happened just after the fire was extinguished. The rapid checkpoint system means that no matter when a power failure occurs, you’ll always come back to the exact position you were in. Power failure isn’t a disaster, it just puts the machine into hibernation. 

“I could start Super Mario [Land] on level one and play through it for a few hours and then I can come back 10 years later and I’m gonna pick up exactly where I was at,” explains Hester. And he means, exactly. He notes that you could be midjump in Mario, or a Tetris block could be suspended above a rapidly filling frame. 

Overcoming the huge challenges associated with the checkpointing system was a major technological achievement, but there was one hurdle that proved too big to leap. 

No sound

The battery-free Game Boy can’t play sound.

It’s a big omission and the system’s most glaring limitation. Not hearing Mario’s “bwoot” when you hit the A button and jump through the air is jarring. The Tetris theme song, Korobeiniki, is as recognizable as the game itself. Tetris isn’t Tetris without Korobeiniki.

“We feel sad about it, but generating sound takes a lot of energy,” says Hester.

There are two fundamental problems with generating sound. One: It’s a technical challenge to make it sound good enough with the small amount of energy generated by the device. It’s possible, de Winkel explains, though it would likely produce a very tinny sound and would be a “whole other endeavour to make it sound right.” 

But the other problem is, it just doesn’t make sense. “Honestly, playing sound would just be annoying as hell,” Kortbeek argues. When the device loses power, is it better to start the music from the beginning? Or should the music continue as if it was briefly muted? How would the brain process that and how much would it break immersion?

Godzilla gave Josiah Hester trouble when he was eight.

NintendoComplete/YouTube

Hester sees the limitations as a way to rethink video games as a whole. Developers with a battery-free device might specifically create products around the intermittent power failures, he says. The failures, then, would become part of the gameplay, which would open up the ability to play sound without annoyance. 

Sound isn’t the only limitation, either. The Engage has a much smaller LCD screen to conserve energy when in operation. And while the system is capable of emulating any Game Boy game and can also load the original cartridges, not all games will experience the same performance on the system. The team didn’t trial the 1,000-plus titles released for the Game Boy, but some of the biggest titles — like Pokemon Blue — have “sadistically huge” memory and don’t require constant button pressing. That’s a problem.

“You could play it,” Hester laughs, “but it’s going to be tough.”

For now, it’s all about optimization. When Hester was beginning his Ph.D. work, the battery-free Game Boy wasn’t possible. It couldn’t exist. The microcontrollers, the small chips that perform all the computations in the Engage, were almost 50 times slower than they are today. In five years, those microcontrollers have come a long way. 

With 30 years between the Game Boy and the Nintendo Switch and the exponential progress being made in intermittent-computing techniques, Hester’s confident that energy-harvesting devices will power games as complex as those we see today. “I would love to have Breath of the Wild on my Switch with an energy harvester,” he says. 

No world for tomorrow

Hester’s scientific endeavors have long been informed by his upbringing as Kanaka Maoli, a Native Hawaiian. He’s always been aware of the clear connection between family and the Earth that characterizes their relationship with the land.

Josiah Hester says we need radical new approaches to tackle climate change.

NWU

“The land is called the ‘Aina and it’s not just a resource to be used,” he says. “Plants and animals are talked about as brothers and sisters.”

Those beliefs drive Hester, but his collaborators in the Netherlands are driven by a sense of duty to combat climate change. Pawełczak notes how sustainability and the environment is a particularly important issue because one-quarter of the country lies below sea level. During our Zoom conversation, de Winkel chimes in, laughing, mentioning how the country’s dikes prevent his home from being swallowed by the sea.

The environmental impact of video games is something developers, publishers, manufacturers and consumers are beginning to come to terms with. The next generation of home consoles — the Xbox Series X and PS5 — are being touted as the most powerful and fastest ever. Looking under the hood, it’s reasonable to assume these next-gen consoles might chug as at least as much energy as their predecessors when they’re released at the end of 2020. 

Outside of raw energy concerns, the batteries powering our smart devices and gaming consoles require the element lithium. The process of mining lithium uses hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and has had a big impact in some of the driest places on Earth, like Chile. Farmers in the region, who rely on water for agriculture and livestock, are losing access to the supply. 

“Obviously I care about my children growing up in a place that’s not burning hot,” Hester says, “and being able to experience a lot of ancient Hawaiian traditions that will disappear because of climate change.”

Is this the beginning of the future for Super Mario Land?

Przemyslaw Pawelczak

The Engage serves as a starting point to inspire the industry and consumers to think about the impacts of battery use. The design, hardware and firmware are all open-source and will be available on GitHub for anyone to use after Sept. 12. A short technical write-up will be available at FreeTheGameBoy.info.

Hester hopes the team’s Game Boy overhaul can inspire a conversation about products using alternative energy sources and highlight their benefits to the environment. “We kind of need radical, crazy approaches,” says Hester. “One of the radical things we could do is completely rethink how we build these devices by throwing the batteries away.”

But Engage is, in its current form, a part of the problem. It requires 3D-printed plastics and its circuitry is dependent on rare earth elements, too. While there are no plans to mass-produce the product (and a tetchy Nintendo would likely never allow that kind of IP infringement), there’s clearly a lot of work to be done to more effectively green handheld gaming.

Eventually every component of battery-free systems, including video game consoles, should be recyclable and reusable, Pawełczak says. “We feel that this is the first major step towards it, because the battery seems to be the biggest polluter,” he says.

“I hope this Game Boy will be enough to draw people’s interest, such that they’ll maybe make changes or, at least, think about how they could approach [climate change] in a radical way,” says Hester. 

As we talk on Zoom, Hester’s young daughter, Leina’ala, hovers at the edge of the frame, a buzzing bundle of energy calling out to her dad. After a polite exchange, Hester convinces her to head back downstairs. She bounds away, shouting an adorable “I wuv you” as she disappears. I joke that she’ll be playing battery-free Tetris by the time she’s Hester’s age.

“3D Tetris,” he replies. “By that time, our energy harvesting will be so pristine, you won’t even need a plug on your Switch. 

“That’s the goal.”

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