Game Boy Advance Hiding In a Medical Device

It turns out that medical manufacturers also do hacking once in a while. [JanHenrikH] recently tweeted a photo of an ECG-Trigger-Unit that he’d opened up. Inside he found that the LCD screen was that of a Game Boy Advance (GBA) and the reason he could tell was that the screen’s original case was still there, complete with GAME BOY ADVANCE SP written on it.

In the manufacturer’s defense, this device was likely made around the year 2000 when gaming products were some of the best sources for high speed, high quality, small LCDs displays.  This design document for a portable ECG measurement instrument from as recently as 2013 cites reasons for using a GBA as:

  • impressive plotting results,
  • no serious transmission delays, and
  • fine graphics processing capability.

The Verge had even turned up this US patent from 1997 that has the diagnostic medical device be a cartridge for plugging into a Game Boy. At the time, PCs were frequently used for medical displays but this patent cites issues such as the higher cost of PCs, software installation issues, and crashing. However, they talk about the crashing being due to running word processing and spreadsheet software on the same PC, something not likely to happen if the PC is dedicated to bedside monitoring.

But despite all those pros, wouldn’t you feel surprise and alarm when you first glimpse the Game Boy inside the device that’s monitoring your heart? We also have to wonder what licensing these products went through in the countries in which they were used. This particular device was made by German company Medical Imaging Electronics.

Game Boy hacks aren’t limited to the medical industry though. Here on Hackaday, we’ve seen them turned into remote controls for flying drones and we’ve seen Game Boy cartridge emulators that use STM32. Finally, if you’re wondering where you saw [Jan Henrik]’s name before, he was one of the two hackers driving the motorized armchair in a photo in our [Jenny List]’s SHACamp 2017 write-up.

Our thanks to [geonomad] for the tip!

57 thoughts on “Game Boy Advance Hiding In a Medical Device

  1. I would imagine that provided the whole device passes all the checks required by the regulatory authorities in a given country, using a Game Boy Advance (or parts thereof) in a medical device is no different to using any other off-the-shelf parts.

      1. Yeah, especially if you work in an industry with a lot of acronyms. We all know the context of LCD in this article, sure, but it can be confusing if you use the abbreviation unexpectedly in another context. Like say talking to a general contractor about framing a wall.
        Also, it can be useful to separate, say, LCD Flat-Panels from LCD Projectors.

  2. No telling if that sub-assembly was first designed for a medical device and later adopted for the gameboy display or the other way around. We do know it was purchased from whichever supplier had better pricing, and that supplier bought if from a manufacturer that had better pricing, and it was manufactured and sold based on rather exacting functional specs. Seen stuff like this in medical devices often enough… gets half a smile for 3 seconds, then move on. Wouldn’t show anyone else unless also found a Frogger game cartridge installed in the device.

    I also think it is awesome! Proves we aren’t foolish enough to reinvent the wheel for every car we build.

    Good article. Proves how smart we are.

    1. Given the volumes Nintendo sells in, I would expect the subassembly to have been designed for Nintendo. Medical devices are low-volume, high-price, so I can’t see Nintendo opting for something from that industry. If they picked something it might be from a manufacturer that didn’t have the ability to ramp up to the quantities Nintendo would require.

      On the other hand, Nintendo volumes probably result in a lot of parts production, surplus parts, refurbished gameboys, etc. This manufacturer probably found a source of such surplus parts, or screens salvaged from returned Gameboys that had a problem in another component. For a low-volume medical device, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find a sufficient supply of such parts.

      1. There’s no way these guys bought refurbished Gameboy units to strip the lcd. These are probably found in a lot of hospitals and clinics all over the world, and they probably ordered them through a bulk parts supplier. Not directly from Nintendo, however they may have. The markup on the medical device would far exceed the low volume pricing they had to pay.

        1. Unlikely. You can easily get those screens without a GBA logo. In fact it’s hard to get them with a proper logo. I think they just bought a lot of new GBA’s and simply repurposed the screens. Medical devices sell for lots and lots of money so price would not have been that much of an issue. And you don’t want to mess around with used components.

          1. The secondary medical device market needs some mention, it is where much of this happens. Used devices typically still needing service that were sold or traded in when replaced with new. Sold openly to highest bidder, private individuals can buy these now. Hospitals routinely sell their old medical devices. Govt auctions! Wanna buy a colonoscope? There’s a lucrative trade in all manner of ‘scopes”. YOU can buy these! Some buy these to repair and resell for profit and a display ripped out of an old gameboy at home might WELL have been used by one of these cowboys getting a medical device ready for resale. Meeting OEM spec used for FDA approvals is all that’s needed and used parts are NOT an issue, even if it was a gameboy. You can test the medical device it to insure it functions properly when you buy it. You DID test it when you bought it, right? Extra labels on parts are not part of the FDA approval, don’t matter. Used parts and assemblies are installed. Two machines not working are morphed into one working and one a pile of spare parts. Radio Shack components, Electronics Goldmine, American Science and Surplus… whatever they can get hold of cheap to do the work. Lots of tiny contract biomedical repair and resale businesses out there. Lots. Most are great… reputation is everything… you checked them out just like you verify your auto mechanics credentials and training, right?

            Look for yourself. Pre-Owned, Used, X-ray, Incubator, MRI, CT, Colonoscope, Sterilizer, etc. Used medical devices of all types are a brisk trade. This is all VERY common. Look up biomedical servicing… you’ll find firms from 1 to 50 employees. Couple smart biomeds can make more a year on their own like this than they can working for a hosp.

    1. I work on a project that used a Handspring Visor for the platform, and used a modified cellphone cartridge (they managed to purchase the case from the manufacturer) to hold some custom electronics. The opening for the antenna was the perfect size to hold an Omnetics connector.

      1. Those old handsprings have quite the expansion. If memory serves, the microphone on the handspring visior was only accessable through the cartrage, so as to allow voice recording and cell modules.

  3. This is giving me the supply chain herby-jeebies:
    “Hello, we’d like to order some more LCDs.”
    “Oh sorry, we stopped making those.”
    “When’s the last irder date?”
    “Last February.”
    “Oh ####, now we have to find a new part and update the medical certifications.”

  4. Looking at the tweet it’s pretty clear the whole GBA is in there. You can see the cart slot with a custom cart installed containing flash. There is an extra board for power and interface, but yes the whole Gameboy is in there.

  5. Honestly, as a former EMT, I’m not terribly surprised to find what was essentially a ruggedized miniature computer system modified and embedded to serve as the brains of a medical device. Most handheld game systems are designed to take the abuse of a young child as well as run the intended software as stably as possible. Pretty much the same design goals for most medical devices. You really can’t understand just how much physical punishment those medical units take until you work in a hospital or field medical environment. I’ve seen patients/staff tip entire stands over with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment attached to them. Nurses just pick it back up, plug anything back in that came loose, and everything’s expected to keep working without a hiccup.

    1. I guess he was getting a little too much interest. I’ve changed the link to a twitter “moments” page instead. It just doesn’t have the photo, but it’s pretty much this article’s banner photo anyway (just a little cropped). Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. “wouldn’t you feel surprise and alarm when you first glimpse the Game Boy inside the device that’s monitoring your heart?”

    actually, I would feel much safer. I cannot think of a more rugged, stable device than the gameboy.

  7. As it happens I am in the process of adding better LEDs to the cheap GBC lens module I bought on Ebay. Hint: rip some out of a cracked laptop LCD panel as they are super bright and easy to harvest from the flexible mylar PCB with care. Then use Blutak and some microsolder to attach wires, for the samples I have they will run on 3.1V fine at 50% brightness totally swamping the cheap bulbs shipped with this particular unit.

  8. Such a nice medical device, but Standard Operating Procedure can be considered as the lifeline of the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. Recently i found a brand “CCE Software Pvt.” when i was searching for sop software. And i was really glad that they delivering the best SOP Management software as per the requirements in the industry.

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