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. He delicately places them on a circuit board with surgical precision, periodically checking his progress with a magnifying glass. For a factory, it is spotless. It must be. In the sleepy Dutch town of Delft, his house, about 30 miles southwest of Amsterdam, is the birthplace of a world first. The battery-free game Boy. A video game console is powered by a combination of energy from the sun and button-mashing during gameplay. It is an orange brick about the size of a paperback novel. Still, it weighs only half as much as the original Nintendo Game Boy released in 1989.
De Winkel, a computer scientist at the Delft University of Technology, has been building the device for about a year. He calls it his “baby.” Officially it is dubbed the “Engage” (no relation to Nokia’s failed console), but the inspiration is obvious. Besides 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 are 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 “proof by demonstration” that battery-free mobile gaming is possible. It is not a Nintendo product, but it is also not just a simple novelty for researchers, either. Like the original Game Boy, it is designed to spark a revolution. Hester and Pawełczak, who lead the project, studied energy harvesting and “intermittent computing” devices for years. The Engage results from 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 is more at stake than just novelty, awareness, or convenience. An even bigger issue looms over the team’s work: global heating and modern technology’s ecological impacts. The system, Hester hopes, will inspire communities from game developers to consumers to radically rethink how the world approaches sustainability and climate change.
The battery free GameBoy
“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 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 is 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 energy harvesting and intermittent-computing technology.
“This could not have been possible even four or five years ago,” he says. Intermittent computing, an emerging field of computer science and engineering, drives the Engage’s design principles. 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 Engage. It is 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 button presses made by the user. That is enough to power the Engage for around 10 seconds, depending on the game in its present state. Then, losing control, it switches off. A few quick buttons mash restore gameplay in less than a second. Such constant, intermittent failures will not please players in 2020, but the Engage is not a device created for sale. It is a research and development tool, proof that battery-free devices can be interactive and encourage user interaction. Previous devices that did not need batteries, such as eye-tracking glasses and a cellphone that can make a phone call, are impressive, but they are single-use cases. “We’re making a huge leap towards useful and usable systems built upon this foundation of intermittent computing,” says Pawełczak. The goal: Build a device where the time between failure and restoration is so small it is no longer noticeable to the player. To get there, the team has had to rethink everything it knows about the Game Boy.
The Game Boy started a revolution when it debuted in 1989, leading to three decades of dominance in Nintendo’s handheld console market. By today’s standards, the original Game Boy, designed by Nintendo legend Gunpei Yokoi, is primitive and unsightly. Still, it upholds Nintendo’s long-standing ethos: innovative, 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. He crushed the Atari Lynx and Sega’s Game Gear, its technically superior opposition. Where the Lynx and Game Gear zigged, the Game Boy zagged. Focusing on games rather than flashy, energy-hungry graphics excelled in one 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 his memories are fond ones. Though the Game Boy’s battery life 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. 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. We are replacing them frequently. Switching them out and throwing them away. The modern battery is not 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 Engage mission is to realize a world of long-lasting, potentially eternal devices. If some unforeseen apocalypse were to steamroll humanity (something that is felt increasingly likely in this torrid year), and you pulled an Engage from the rubble, it would remain operational. All you would 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.
Energy-harvesting techniques are not 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 protected and restored in milliseconds. “We’re saving quickly and restoring from our saved game fast without anyone seeing,” says Hester. That is 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 continuously being modified and stored and written into the memory. Still, it is 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 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. 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. Once you do not touch, the other you stick a mustache and some glasses on. Massive fire rips through the second museum, but you copy just the mustache and glasses moments before that. When you restore the second version, you do not paint a brand-new Girl with a Pearl Earring. You copy the surviving painting and stick the mustache and glasses on it. But this restoration happens so fast it is practically indistinguishable as if it happened just after the fire was extinguished. The rapid checkpoint system means that no matter when a power failure occurs, you will always return to the exact position you were in. Power failure is not 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 ten years later, and I’m going to 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 enormous challenges associated with the checkpointing system was a significant technological achievement. Still, there was one hurdle that proved too big to leap.
The battery-free Game Boy cannot play sound. It is a significant 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 is not 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 is a technical challenge to make it sound good enough with the device’s small amount of energy. It is possible, de Winkel explains, though it would likely produce a very tinny sound and would be a “whole other endeavor to make it sound right.” But the other problem is, it just does not 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. Hester sees the limitations to rethink video games. Developers with a battery-free device might specifically create products around the intermittent power failures, he says.
Then, the failures would become part of the gameplay, which would open the ability to play sound without annoyance. Sound is not the only limitation, either. The Engage has a much smaller LCD screen to conserve energy when in operation. And while the system can emulate any Game Boy game and can also load the original cartridges, not all games will experience the same performance on the system. The team did not trial the 1,000-plus titles released for the Game Boy, but some of the biggest titles — like Pokémon Blue — have “sadistically huge” memory and do not require constant button pressing. That is a problem. “You could play it,” Hester laughs, “but it’s going to be tough.” For now, it is all about optimization. When Hester was beginning his Ph.D. work, the battery-free Game Boy was not possible. It could not 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.