The original Game Boy from 1989 was an iconic handheld console but, as anyone who owned one will tell you, it required a steady stream of batteries to keep running. Now, a team of researchers at Northwestern University and Delft University of Technology have developed a new take on the classic console, replacing its array of four AA batteries with a set of five rows of solar panels and buttons that harvest power as you play.
The Engage, as the team have called their device, is theoretically capable of being used to play any game made for the original Game Boy, and it’s even got a slot on its back if you want to insert an original game cartridge. It’s about the size of a paperback book, but as CNET reports, it only weighs half as much as the original handheld.
It also comes with a host of limitations. It doesn’t have sound for one thing, and its LCD screen is absolutely tiny. Oh, and it also tends to shut off every 10 seconds or so. It’s difficult to harvest enough power to stay on continuously, so the Engage is built to be able to shut down and come back to life with the mash of a button without losing any progress (a surprisingly difficult feat). The amount of time it can stay on for reportedly varies by game. Tetris can survive a little longer than Super Mario Land, for example. And apparently Pokémon Blue, with its larger memory requirements and minimal button presses to supply power, is a bit of a nightmare.
Suffice it to say that this wouldn’t be a great way to re-visit the Game Boy’s classic library of games, but that’s not really the point. The Engage is instead meant as a research project: a way to explore how future games consoles could be made to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Not only do consoles draw a lot of power, but modern batteries use lithium, a rare earth mineral which has significant environmental costs to mine.
“We kind of need radical, crazy approaches,” Josiah Hester, one of the co-creators of the project, tells CNET, “One of the radical things we could do is completely rethink how we build these devices by throwing the batteries away.”
The Engage is due to be unveiled on September 12th at the virtual UbiComp conference, after which its design, hardware, and firmware will all be open-sourced on GitHub. You can read all about its development in a feature published by CNET.