In the ideal world of Josiah Hester, electronics wouldn’t rely on battery power but would instead gather energy from more sustainable models, such as solar panels. What’s more, he would like to see the now-ubiquitous face mask made “smarter” with powerful sensors. As an assistant professor of computer engineering at Northwestern University, Hester is making these dreams a reality.
Two of his key projects have made headlines recently: a battery-free Game Boy, the handheld gaming device Nintendo launched in 1989, and a face mask insert laden with sensors that determine the wearer’s heart rate, respiration rate and if the mask has been fitted properly.
“I want to see how we can better harness our resources and become more ecologically intelligent in how we develop products,” says Hester, who earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. in computer science at Clemson.
The smart face mask, dubbed FaceBit, is his most timely project. It’s a direct response to Hester and his team at the Ka Moamoa Ubiquitous and Mobile Computing Lab witnessing health care workers struggle with wearing PPE for long hours. As stressful moments can elicit physiological responses, including a spiked heart rate, FaceBit can leverage that data to alert the mask-wearer to take a break or go for a walk. Hospitals also could use this data to optimize shift and break schedules for their workers.
Hester harnessed his passion for sustainable computing — where energy sources are often renewable and infinite — to create the smart insert. He says that despite FaceBit sporting a small battery, it can harvest energy from the force, heat and motion of the wearer’s breathing, as well as from the sun.
For now, FaceBit must be tested in more situations, such as on the subway, before it can be made available to the public, but the mask insert is another step Hester has taken to design products that run on energy from unusual sources. His battery-free Game Boy, for example, is outfitted with solar panels that can play the games he grew up loving, from Tetris to Pokémon.
“But if you press down on the A and B buttons or the directional pad, it will also produce energy,” Hester beams. “I can’t believe I get paid to play with toys.”
This toy isn’t a frivolous project, though. Hester says its implications could inspire other researchers to develop battery-free devices and show the gaming industry how much energy their products soak up regularly. “Sustainable gaming may be niche, but I think this industry will realize how energy is becoming a more and more precious resource,” he adds.
Hester, a Hawaii native and recipient of Clemson’s 2021 Outstanding Young Alumni Award, cherishes his Clemson years and remembers the mentors who made a mark on his career, including Jacob Sorber, associate professor of computer science, who introduced him to the emerging area of battery-free devices.
And the icing on the Clemson cake? “I met my wife, Emily, at Clemson during a tailgate party,” Hester says. “That was definitely a special part of Clemson for me.”