Batteries not included: This Game Boy look-alike doesn’t need them

The new device uses renewable energy to play old-school games

Researchers have created a Game Boy look-alike that runs on solar energy and button presses. Such devices could pave the way for more sustainable gaming.

Northwestern University

Game Boys seem so last century. But scientists in the United States and the Netherlands have given the old-time handheld game console a modern twist. Instead of batteries, the new device gets its power from the sun and the mashing of its keys.   

Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have been looking for a way to reduce the electronic waste that handheld games and other mobile devices create. To that end, they reimagined the Game Boy. The original revolutionized the gaming world when it went on sale in 1989. Kids and adults were able to play Tetris, Super Mario Bros. and other games anytime, anywhere.  

Researchers hope their version will have a greater impact. The original’s hardware gobbled so much power that it could not easily go battery-free. So, Northwestern computer engineer and longtime gamer Josiah Hester and his team revamped the Game Boy from scratch.

At the heart of the new device is a small, low-power microcontroller. That’s an itty-bitty computer chip that controls the actions of this device. Here, it runs a computer program that pretends to be a Game Boy. As a result, it can read the instructions from original Game Boy cartridges. Pretty smart, eh?

Hester and his team then put solar panels on the front to power the device. Those panels turn energy from sunlight into electricity.

But that’s not all. The team placed a small magnet under each button. Why? When a person presses or releases the button, the magnet moves through a wire coil. As it does, the magnetic field around the coil changes. That creates an electrical current that fuels the device.

Hester says it’s better to play games like Tetris on the new device because there is a lot of button mashing. The more a gamer pounds, the more energy the battery-free game creates.

Moreover, the console can produce enough power to support about 10 seconds of play when there is a lot of light. It then dies for a second and restarts.  That’s not a big problem. The console’s memory allows games to resume play at the same spot even after the power goes off.

Still, Hester’s team wants to find other ways to create energy. They’re talking about using heat or friction. They also want to see if shaking can generate power. 

The new Game Boy isn’t for sale. It’s only a research project that may pave the way for other eco-friendly devices.

Game on!

Maria Temming is the staff reporter for physical sciences, covering everything from chemistry to computer science and cosmology. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

More Stories from Science News for Students on Science & Society