Saturday, June 23, 2018

New Accessories and Ideas for the Game Boy Camera

Courtesy of Wikipedia
The Game Boy, while a modern marvel in and of itself, had a very unique peripheral released for it toward the transition from the monochrome Game Boy to the Game Boy Color.  That device was the Game Boy Camera, a cartridge with an twistable camera lens capable of taking four-color photographs in a 128x112 resolution surrounded by borders.  It could save up to 30 user-taken pictures to its battery-backed memory.  The program included some rudimentary editing tools, simple games and many little touches which were weird by Nintendo's standards.  Nintendo also released the Game Boy Printer, a small thermal printer which functioned as the only official way to memoralize photos outside the cartridge.  While the Camera was considered a modern marvel itself in its day, the Camera has had a cult following ever since.  Let's look at some of the ways in which continued interest in the Game Boy Camera has manifested itself.



Successors to the Mad Catz GB to PC Camera Link Cable

As I mentioned above, the only official way to save your photographs is to print them to thermal paper using the Game Boy Printer.  Original rolls of Game Boy Printer paper are harder to come by.  The rolls had a removable sticky back for making stamps, but that adhesive weakens over time.  The more difficult issues are that thermal paper is chemically coated but that coating breaks down over time.  You can substitute rolls that are cut to the same width as the original paper.  When thermal paper is printed the result often streaky and fuzzy.  Moreover, the printing will fade over time and reacts to heat.  An image may be uncecognizeable in two to three years.  You can scan the printed image, but the file size will be rather large and the quality will be lacking.

The Game Boy Camera stores its captured images digitally and sends that data digitally via the Game Link port to the Printer.  Some time after the release of the Camera, a company called Mad Catz released software and a Game Link to Parallel Port cable which allowed you to print your images to .bmp files stored on your PC's hard drive.

The Mad Catz software leaves something to be desired.  It doesn't work with those games which send images to the printer like The Legend of Zelda : Link's Awakening DX or Pokemon Yellow.  It also requires Windows 9x to work and a real bidirectional parallel port, not a USB to parallel port adapter.  Hobbyists have addressed these two issues with devices built on with more modern microcontrollers. Here are three such projects :

BennVenn's Game Boy Printer Emulator

https://bennvenn.myshopify.com/pages/diy-projects-1

Arduino Nano Game Boy Printer Emulator

https://github.com/mofosyne/arduino-gameboy-printer-emulator

GBcamera ImageSaver

https://importhack.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/gbcamera-imagesaver/

Of the above three, the latter two use an Arduino and are intended for the more technical user.  The BennVenn solution uses a controller on a USB stick and you can buy a fully assembled printer adapter and pre-programmed USB stick here : https://www.retromodding.com/products/bennvenns-game-boy-printer-emulator-kit?variant=7084798476321  At $15.99, it is a really good price and it supports printing double-height images found in certain games. But it has a drawback, namely that you may have to allow an unsigned drivers on Windows 10, which is a nuisance.

SD Card Backup Devices

The above solutions are good for backing up your photos in the comfort of your home, but there is a community of Game Boy Camera enthusiasts who like to take photographs outside.  It isn't very convenient to have to go and plug your Game Boy Camera into a desktop or laptop every time you take 30 pictures.  The following products are more pricier than the microcontroller-based devices above, but they save your photos to an SD card, giving you access to unlimited storage in the field.

BitBoy

https://gameboyphoto.bigcartel.com/

ElSnappo

https://bennvenn.myshopify.com/products/elsnappo

The ElSnappo is the cheaper of the two devices at $40 vs $100 for the BitBoy, but currently exists as a bare PCB and requires a USB power brick.  However, between these devices and the micro-controller devices identified in the previous section, there is a solution for any budget to transfer photos from a Camera to a hard drive.

Reorienting the GBA SP -  Successors to the GBA Game Shark and Datel Action Replay

The GBA SP's frontlit and backlit screens are by far the easiest devices in the Game Boy line to use with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games.  No mods are required.  But for the Game Boy Camera, it is less than convenient to use because the cartridges are oriented downward instead of upward as they do on all other Game Boys.  The pictures you take will be upside down.  The GBA cheat devices orient cartridges on a GBA SP to have an upward orientation.  But they are getting expensive, so if you want a cheaper solution without the cheat functions, you should consider this :

CartWheel


Made by the same people who produce the BitBoy, this solution, for $25, is a reasonable price to pay to use your Game Boy Camera in the proper orientation.  However, it does introduce an issue in that taking selfies with the Camera have to be taken on faith because the top of the GBA SP's screen will block the Camera's lens unless it is bent downard at a 90 degree angle.  This makes it impossible to preview your selfie.

Taking "Color" Photos

The Camera was released in 1998 just before the release of the Game Boy Color and does not have any additional functionality when inserted into a Color.  It only takes monochrome pictures, but one clever individual developed a process by which it could take color images :


Using a black and white camera to take color images is nothing new, some of the first color photographs ever produced used separate filtered monochrome image layers to combine into a color layer.  The 3-strip Technicolor cameras of the 1930s-1940s used that method.  However, with the Game Boy Camera, you must not use only red, green and blue filters, you must also use an infrared filter for every exposure to get proper colored images.

Another user found a way to "colorize" portrait photographs using neural networks

http://www.pinchofintelligence.com/photorealistic-neural-network-gameboy/

Neural networks are a form of artificial intelligence which seeks to simulate how the human brain stores and processes information.  The basic idea is that when we see the low-resolution monochrome Game Boy Camera photo, our brains can use reasoning and experience to reconstruct a face, skin tone and hair color within a reasonable degree of accuracy.  The network learns over time, so by the time it has processed 10,000 images, it can come much closer to a photorealistic image.  However, the best results shown were taken with a high quality camera, then downconverted to Camera specifications.  It appears that photographs which were taken directly with the Camera are not likely to give as good results.

Telephoto/Telescope Lens Adapters

The Game Boy Camera had a rather short focal length, so it was not intended to take long-view shots.  But with a little 3-D printing and a long-focus lens, this limitation can be overcome :


http://ekeler.com/game-boy-camera-canon-ef-mount

Another enthusiast got good results with an observatory's telescope and a generic camera mount :

http://pietrow.net/astrogb.html

The 3-D printed designs do not appear to be publicly available, but the camera mount, called the "Gosky Universal Cell Phone Adapter Mount" looks like it can attach not only to telescopes but also to microscope and one half of a pair of binoculars.  It was intended as a cheap way to take images from optical magnifying devices, but it could easily work with a Game Boy Pocket, Light, Color or SP.  

Using your Game Boy Printer as a Generic Thermal Printer

Courtesy of Wikipedia
There is nothing particularly extraordinary about the Game Boy Printer, it functions like a thermal printer, but it can run off six AA batteries.  The serial-based protocol used by the printer is well-known.  It can print 160 pixels across the paper and as far down as it can until it runs out of paper.  Someone figured out how to send images to the printer via PC :

http://furrtek.free.fr/?a=gbpcable

Even though the instructions are in French, Google Translate can make them intelligible.  You need a transfer cable for old Nokia phones, the CA-42.  You also need a GBA serial link cable.  Inside the USB housing you solder an ATTiny45 Microcontroller (which you have to program) to the Game Boy link cable's wires and use the Windows program on that page to print images.

My Method for Retrieving Images from the Game Boy Camera


I do not own any of the devices mentioned above, but until I started researching for this article, I did not realize that I already had all the equipment I needed to transfer images from my Game Boy Camera.  A sentence contained in the Wikipedia article for the Game Boy Camera mentioned how you display photos on your TV with your Super Game Boy or Game Boy Player reminded me of the fact that you can use the Camera with those devices.  The Super Game Boy has a custom border for the Camera and defaults to a black and white palette.  Normally I do not think to use the Camera cartridge with my Super Game Boy because the SNES isn't exactly mobile.

You can transfer Game Boy Camera images displayed on a SNES using a capture card, but original hardware will stretch the image slightly and obtaining a lossless capture is very difficult unless you have a 1CHIP console and are using RGB cables and an OSSC or Framemeister or a Datapath VisionRGB E1 or E1s.  I have a Super Nt which outputs a digital image through HDMI.  The Super Game Boy dumps its images to the SNES's video RAM, so the image as displayed on the Super Nt is as good as it is displayed from a Game Boy.  Using the Super Nt's video options to give a 1:1 pixel aspect ratio, perfect captures of the images shot with a Game Boy Camera can be obtained.

Once the Super Nt is setup, I set my StarTech USB3HDCAP to capture full RGB with the R.709 color space.  I can either record video or maximize the image to my screen and take a screen capture with Ctrl + Print Screen and save to an image editing program like Infranview.  I can crop out the all the borders or just the Super Game Boy's borders there and use nearest neighbor resizing to get a 160x144 image.

I would not trust any of the HDMI clones by HyperKin, Retro-Bit or Gamerz Tek to give a lossless image.  These consoles convert analog video into HDMI.  You can get a decent image because the Game Boy is B&W, but do not expect lossless.

You could also use the Camera to record "video" using this or similar methods (like this here : http://gieskes.nl/gb_camera_video_out_tutorial/) to obtain output from a Game Boy, but given that the frame rate can be counted in single digits, the results aren't likely to be very good.  

1 comment:

Fuzzy Skinner said...

Thanks for compiling these articles! The newer hardware options for saving Game Boy Camera photos are great, as is the project on taking color photos. I might have to fire up my old Camera and Printer again...