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

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.

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.

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.

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.



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