A battery-free GameBoy

The world's first battery-less GameBoy is out now, could it start a revolution in gaming?
25 September 2020

Interview with 

Josiah Hester & Przemek Pawelczak, McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University, Illinois


A Gameboy


Chris Berrow talks to Josiah Hester and Przemek Pawelczak, developers of the battery-free GameBoy...

Chris - You might have owned a GameBoy when they were released in 1990, you may remember constantly checking that the batteries weren’t going to die on you, just as you were about to complete Mario!

But now 30 years later… the team at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University in Illinois have designed a GameBoy without batteries!

I found out more from Josiah Hester and Przemek Pawelczak

Josiah - The initial conversation was, Oh, could we harvest energy from button presses, like button mashing and like, ha ha laugh, laugh, like, wait, okay. Maybe we could do that actually. And so figuring out all the little pieces that could possibly go together was a huge initial portion... and going back and forth on that. That's why you see things like the tiny screen, right? Cause it was just, we could not get anything bigger, but all the design came from like, can we make it as close as possible to a GameBoy.

Przemek - The first ever experience with the battery-free GameBoy was with Super Mario and I got to be the one to play it. The unique part is like the mind blowing experience when you see that, you know, the system dies and, you know, once it gets enough of energy, you continue from the last moment that you were at.

Chris - But it does hurt me as a radio DJ and a podcaster to hear that sound isn't available on this game yet!

Josia - We're, you know, one thing we kind of didn't even think about, which I feel a little bit, uh, stupid now is, you know, it's pretty easy to generate, uh, the power required for sound for like headphones. Cause it's, you know, the speakers so close to your ear, we may have been able to pull that off, but even then, right, if you had like a, you know, the sound would kind of go like, you know, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, you know, there'd be kind of interruptions. Um, so I don't know. I'm rethinking how it used to play Mario. And now it's become more of a challenge. Cause now we have to beat Bowzer, save Princess Peach and generate enough energy so that I can keep playing. So sound is on the menu for the future, I would say.

Chris - How much difference would it battery free game by really make, because at the moment, the big problem is realistically huge rooms of servers running on electricity, causing a much bigger problem than perhaps just the consoles themselves. That's a drop in the ocean.

Josiah - So if you see a battery for a GameBoy, you're like, Oh huh, the carbon footprint of gaming. Maybe I should think about that. And maybe this is actually something that can be addressed. You know, everyone on the planet has to change a battery every six minutes. Um, and then this huge ecological cost of, you know, all the water that it takes to mine, lithium from these mines water security issues from, uh, populations that are already dealing with water scarcity. Right? And so I think there's even with just, uh, the GameBoy, and then the larger idea of smart devices and the internet of things, uh, kind of showing these new approaches to doing battery lists, mobile, uh, smart devices is going to have a huge, huge impact.

Przemek - The gaming industry has a big problem with carbon emissions, uh, that not many people accept or even are aware of. Um, and you want to change that? What do we need? Could the Nintendo Switch be battery-free? Now the answer is no, because that thing costs too much energy. You cannot regenerate enough of energy by just simply pressing a button. So, I mean, you could, but that's all about probably the size of your 40 inch screen and probably don't want to play. So we're not there yet. If someone would ask us to create a battery-free GameBoy three years back, it would be still impossible. 


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