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Researchers from the Delft University of Technology (TU), Netherlands and Northwestern University, Evanston, U.S., have taken significant steps in developing internet-connected devices that work without a battery. In technical terms, this involves “battery-free intermittent computing” whereby devices obtain energy from their environment. The trick is to configure them in such a way that they perform tasks properly despite the fact that they occasionally fail.

This involves quite a few challenges, such as accurate memory management and accurate tracking of elapsed time. So far it has been successfully applied to small sensors for scientific use. But TU Delft and Northwestern decided to increase the complexity considerably by trying it with a clone of a Game Boy game console.

The energy-conscious gaming platform (ENGAGE) works by using solar panels in the front. The user also serves as a second source of energy when they press the Game Boy buttons.

No more save game files

To achieve an acceptable playing time between device failures, the researchers had to redesign the system hardware and software from the ground up to make it both energy-conscious and energy-efficient. They also developed a new technique to efficiently write the active state of the system to the permanent memory and back again as soon as there is enough energy to continue playing.

This makes the so-called save games of traditional game platforms superfluous, as the player continues to play from the exact moment the device fails – even if it is in the middle of a jump during a platform game like Super Mario Land.

Battery-free society

On a not-too-cloudy day and for games where you as a user are pretty much at the controls, game interruptions are limited to less than one second for every ten seconds of play. The researchers consider this to be acceptable for some games – including chess, solitaire and tetris – but not yet good enough for action games.

There is still a long way to go before the state-of-the-art portable game consoles as we know them today can do without battery power. But the ENGAGE gaming platform is a first step in that direction.

The ultimate goal is a society in which our dependence on batteries is reduced. After all, batteries are expensive, dangerous to the environment and must eventually be replaced to prevent entire devices from ending up in the garbage heap.