Make no mistake, the Game Boy is arguably one of the most influential game machines ever created. If you think about it, 14 years on the market and millions of sales helped in paving the way for modern handheld gaming today, right down to the Nintendo Switch. The Game Boy is more than just a relic for retro enthusiasts, it is a system that is still widely played to this day by many gamers out there.
That love for the Game Boy is no doubt why researchers at Northwestern University, partnered with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (TU Delft), have pushed the boundaries of handheld design and have created the first battery-free Game Boy in existence.
“It’s the first battery-free interactive device that harvests energy from user actions,” said Northwestern’s Josiah Hester, assistant professor of electrical, computer science, and computer engineering. “When you press a button, the device converts that energy into something that powers your gaming.”
Hester is one of the co-leaders on the project, which includes Przemyslaw Pawelczak, co-lead from TU Delft and assistant professor, along with two Ph.D. candidates from Delft; Vito Kortbeek and Jasper de Winkel.
The Game Boy created is an 'energy aware gaming platform' or ENGAGE, that looks similar to the original Game Boy, but is equipped with a set of solar panels attached to the front of the cases chassis. To help recreate the original Game Boy feel, Hester and his team had to find a way to harvest and recycle energy to power up the system, play game cartridges, and still work in unfavorable conditions.
The entire systems hardware and software were eventually designed from the ground up to be energy efficient. New features were also added to help combat power failures. One such technique including storing the system state in non-volatile memory, which allows for quick restoration if the power is lost and returns. Similar to a save-state, this allows player to continue right where they left off when the device loses power.
The researchers have found that certain games and conditions currently suffer from these gameplay interruptions, most notably games that require moderate amounts of clicking, with a ratio of interruptions lasting less than a second for every ten seconds of gameplay. Weather conditions also play a factor into the handhelds shortcomings, as does the fact that the system doesn't have the capabilities to play audio at all.
Still, for the research team, this is a step forward to create energy efficient technology without the need for costly batteries.
“Sustainable gaming will become a reality, and we made a major step in that direction — by getting rid of the battery completely,” said Pawelczak. “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.”