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Startup puts Bluetooth transceiver into Game Boy

Posted: 07 Aug 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:bluetooth? rf transceiver? FPGA? PDA? PC?

A small startup in the U.S. has tucked a Bluetooth RF transceiver and protocol-translation FPGA into a cartridge format compatible with the Nintendo Game Boy Color and Advance platforms. X-Tra Fun Inc.'s intent is not just to provide a Bluetooth link between gamers in one room, but to turn the Game Boy platform into a de facto PDA. The handheld game device would be able to synchronize with a Bluetooth-enabled PC, send and receive e-mail, send text messages to a cellphone, and eventually, receive streaming video at several tens of frames per second.

The key to the system's capability is twofold: a local Bluetooth link between a Game Boy and a PC with a USB-based receiver dongle, and an Oracle AppServer and database that reside in the X-Tra Fun network operations center. The latter offers the option of local peer-to-peer piconet services or true peer-to-server capability with full Internet access.

Mark Kramer, president and CEO, said that a literature search conducted as X-Tra Fun applied for a patent convinced the company that no other Bluetooth developers have a cartridge-based transceiver under development. X-Tra Fun has been monitoring the work on proprietary modulation that Motorola Inc. is conducting with Nintendo and other gaming specialists. But Kramer said that alternative "gaming LANs" seemed oriented to using the Game Boy's existing cable port, restricting services to local multipoint communications only.

On its own

"Nintendo still seems wedded to the strategy of using cartridges as the primary revenue opportunity," he said. "This means they do not want to use the cartridge slot and they are still afraid of users downloading games online."

Consequently, X-Tra Fun is on its own, seeding software development kits to game developers, working on middleware for advanced communication, and looking for vertical applications where an open Game Boy platform could prove useful. In an era where venture capital is virtually nonexistent, Kramer said that the X-Tra Fun principals realize they may have to postpone retail offerings of a Bluetooth cartridge until partners have been lined up.

In the meantime, Kramer and co-executives have incorporated a second company, BlueRadios Inc., which will offer special RF modules and USB dongles to provide Bluetooth capabilities to vertical industries. If an application in one of X-Tra Fun's four target markets - entertainment, education, medical and robotics - is best served by an embedded-design approach, BlueRadios steps in.

"We realized that developing for a platform like Palm is not the way to hit a larger market," said engineering director Will Tucker. "By contrast, the Game Boy is everywhere."

The designers decided that for footprint, cost, and power reasons, any cartridge-based transceiver had to rely mainly on the Game Boy's resident Z80 processor. The team reduced the footprint of the RF/IF chain and developed an FPGA that could run the native Bluetooth HDI protocol stack and also translate to TCP/IP networks. The goal, Tucker said, was to keep microcontrollers out of the cartridge itself, but to let the RF module connect to any 8-bit or greater controller, provided the port had some kind of UART or similar interface.

The layout of the system board was compact enough to justify offering the transceiver module on the open market, where X-Tra Fun says it already has entertained some design requests. The company also used the module inside a very small USB dongle to enable localized PCs as access points. It is quietly offering the dongle as an aftermarket upgrade for PCs that have extra USB ports, but are not Bluetooth-enabled.

"This answers the question of what to do with legacy systems," Kramer said.

The Class 1, 100m RF module uses the standard Bluetooth 2.4GHz band. It supports 79 RF channels, 1,600hops/s and 712Kbps transmission rates. The cartridge will retail for less than $49.

The company is pursuing a variety of vertical markets. X-Tra Fun is talking to developers working with Lego's Mindstorms environment, to link Game Boy-based communicators to simple robotics networks. Medical corporations are exploring the idea of using the units to link hospitalized patients with their friends and also their doctors. In many light-manufacturing industries, Kramer said, Bluetooth networks are far cheaper than 802.11. Moreover, users are more familiar with Game Boy-like controls than with an 802.11-based high-end PDA.

Kramer holds out the hope that early licensing deals will allow some production cartridges to be completed in early 2003.

- Loring Wirbel

EE Times

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