February 10, 1990. “The Power Glove is the first step towards artificial reality. It is a bulky glove, resembling those that astronauts wear that can electronically direct a Nintendo video game several feet away. What the Power Glove does is extend two-dimensional games into the third dimension: the space in front of the screen. Someday, children may jump into Wonderland with Alice, or put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Douglas Martin, New York Times. In 1989, Mattel released the Power Glove, the first mass-produced gesture-based device. Less than a year later, the product was discontinued. This is its story. One more throw… Oh, missed that one. Well, this is the latest thing in computer games. No keyboards, no joysticks. Just this glove. And as you can see, my hand is projected there inside the computer world, trying… to catch the balls. I’m sorry, Novak. I couldn’t wait to show my friends the Power Glove. What can I say? Since you’re here, why don’t you give us a few demonstrations? Sure. I’m a Glove Master. I know everything there is to know about the Power Glove. I’m here to teach you if you want to learn. – Let’s go for it!
– All right. But first, a little history. In 1981, in his bedroom at his parents’ home in Queens, New York, Thomas Zimmerman was daydreaming. A creative mind throughout his whole life, Zimmerman had just graduated with a degree in Humanities and Engineering from MIT. However, when it came time to find jobs, he had trouble. He had focused his studies on wind energy in a world that was, at the time, concentrating on oil. After a brief stint in graduate school, Zimmerman moved back home to study another passion: electronic music. He came up with an idea. While at MIT, he and a classmate fantasized about virtual orchestras. Zimmerman wanted to see that idea come to life. Wouldn’t it be cool, he thought, if you could play air guitar and hear it come out of the speakers? He set out to create a device that could measure finger bending. Using a garden glove and ten dollars in assorted parts, Zimmerman had his first prototype, which used light to measure finger bending. The prototype had a hollow tube on each finger. An LED was attached to one end while a phototransistor was attached to the other end. As the finger bent, less light would get picked up, which would measure the bend. Zimmerman then programmed various applications that could read the signals. The first simply played musical notes as the fingers bent. Another could interpret sign language. Zimmerman knew he had something special, and in 1982, filed a patent for his invention: the optical flex sensor. While he was able to create applications for the device, they were very simple. Wanting to learn more, Zimmerman signed up for an assembly programming class. While attending class, Zimmerman befriended a group of five other students who used Atari computers instead of the more popular Apple II. One of those students was a woman named Nancy Mayer, who invited the group over to her house in the upscale Greenwich Village neighborhood. He husband was Atari co-founder Steve Mayer, who was living in New York at the time to run a new Atari research lab. Nancy Mayer introduced Zimmerman to her husband, who told him that Atari had just started a new department in California to focus on the future of digital entertainment, including electronic music. It was right up Zimmerman’s alley, and he soon found himself working at the Atari research lab in Sunnyvale, California. While at Atari, Zimmerman showed off his patented invention, the optical flex sensor. Atari took interest and offered him $10,000 for the rights. A friend from New York advised him to turn it down. “This is bigger than $10,000,” he said. “Don’t license it to them.” Zimmerman took his friend’s advice. His time at Atari was ultimately short-lived as the video game crash of 1983 forced Atari to axe the research lab and lay off many employees. His next venture saw him working with a friend on voice synthesizers. Much to his dismay, the optical flex sensor laid dormant. Said Zimmerman, “I had a record player but no records.” But everything changed one night when he attended an electronic music concert at Stanford University. There, he met a fellow music lover by the name of Jaron Lanier. Lanier was often described as a visionary and a genius. Growing up, he was seen as strange and was often socially rejected. At fifteen, he was already taking classes in math and science at New Mexico State University. His mother taught him piano and he became enamored with the idea of computers being used as musical instruments. After making little money as a musician, Lanier began engineering sound for video games, and eventually created his own game, a unique title on the Commodore known as “Moon Dust.” This led to a job at Atari. But, like Zimmermman, the video game crash of 1983 put an end to his job. Now, thanks to royalties he collected from “Moon Dust,” he was working on a new project: a visual programming language. Rather than use standard code, this language used images and sounds to represent complex programming tasks. An ice cube would freeze the program, while a kangaroo could jump to another line of code. Lanier hoped it would introduce non-experts to the world of programming. However, he was having problems with hardware. Screens simply weren’t big enough to display his visualizations. At the electronic music concert, Zimmerman told Lanier about his optical flex sensor glove. Lanier envisioned it as the perfect interface device to use with his visual programming language. Rather than use a screen, people could move objects with the glove in a virtual reality system. It was a perfect match. Chocolate had met peanut butter. Thus the two formed a new company known as VPL Research, the very first company to focus on virtual reality– a term Lanier made up. The company quickly took off, employing engineers and programmers to help improve the visual programming language as well as the glove. Ultrasonic tracking was added, which allowed 3D tracking of hand positions. They named it the “Z-glove,” after Tom Zimmerman. Eventually, an engineer named Young Harvill created a new version of the glove which used fiber-optics to measure finger bending and magnetic sensors for tracking. Although this made the device significantly more expensive, its accuracy and performance improved tremendously. It was named the “Data Glove.” Prospective clients were suddenly more interested in the glove than the visual programming language. VPL switched gears to focus on using the high-powered Data Glove as an interface device and it paid off. One of VPL’s first contracts was with NASA, which planned to use the Data Glove in a virtual world for simulations, or to control robotics in real time. Medical research companies purchased the glove to simulate surgeries and to study hand tremors. The tech industry was suddenly a buzz about the new world of virtual reality. VPL was at the forefront of it all and Jaron Lanier was the unofficial spokesperson. The possibilities seemed endless. But in 1987, an entertainment company came to VPL with the idea of using the glove in a recently revitalized industry: video games. In the 1980s, twin brothers Anthony and John Gentile ran a marketing and design firm in New York City, primarily designing movie posters. While working on posters for the upcoming “Rambo II” film, the twins came up with the idea to make action figures based on the movie. They teamed up with toy industry veteran Marty Abrams and came up with a concept. Companies thought they were nuts. “This is an R-rated movie. Nobody will want these,” they said. But one company, Coleco, took a chance on the product. It paid off. The toys became a huge success, becoming one of the hottest toys of the 1985 holiday season. The Gentile twins teamed up with Abrams permanently and formed a new company with a focus on the entertainment industry. Abrams/Gentile Entertainment also known as AGE. The company’s next idea was to tap into the world of 3D and virtual reality, which was on the rise thanks in part to VPL. The plan was to create a toy line that utilized holograms. However, the team was having trouble keeping production costs down. Anthony and John Gentile called their younger brother, Christopher, for help. A graduate from Syracuse University, Christopher Gentile was working at a nuclear power plant in Illinois as an engineer. Now, he was coming back home to help his brothers with their new idea. With his engineering background, Christopher was able to bring the production costs down so AGE could create a toy line for Hasbro known as Visionaries. Although the toy line was not a success, the implementation of affordable holograms convinced AGE to look further into 3D entertainment. Christopher then came up with a concept for a full 3D gaming system that used a special television and headset. However, he didn’t want to utilize a joystick. He wanted to feel like he was in the game. So Christopher researched different input methods. He soon discovered VPL’s Data Glove. Abrams/Gentile Entertainment struck up a licensing deal with VPL to utilize the data glove technology within the video game industry. VPL provided schematics as well as design documents on the glove. New doors suddenly opened. Christopher began experimenting with the glove, creating fun new applications, such as “Band in a Hand.” Piano. Keys. Chords. We have a drum. When it came to his 3D gaming system, however, timing was not on his side. Nintendo was in total control of the video game market and most companies didn’t dare compete in hardware. The project was eventually abandoned. But Christopher Gentile was still amazed by the possibilities of the Data Glove. “At that point, we figured if we couldn’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he said. Using a Macintosh computer, AGE interfaced the VPL Data Glove to work with the Nintendo Entertainment System as a controller. Movements with your hand translated to movements on the screen. Throwing a punch gave a right hook in “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!” A flick of the finger could send fireballs out of Mario. It was a revolutionary new way to play video games. Now all it needed was an investment from a company. For Mattel, the 1980s was a roller coaster of success and failure. Early on, they invested a large sum of money into their video game console, the Intellivision, only to see it fail. Mattel lost $394 million and was on the verge of bankruptcy. However, they slowly turned things around by focusing on their core toy brands, such as Barbie. So, in October of 1988, when Christopher Gentile walked into a pitch meeting with a VPL Data Glove, Macintosh, and Nintendo Entertainment System, executives were skeptical. He demonstrated the Data Glove with several popular Nintendo games, including “Rad Racer” and “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!” As the demonstration went on, one executive spoke up. “May I try it?” she asked. It was Jill Barad, the Senior Vice President of Marketing Development. Barad joined Mattel in 1981 as a product manager. Recognizing her skills in selling a product, management quickly made her director of the Barbie toy line in 1982, which experienced an incredible sales growth under her leadership. In many ways, Barad saved Mattel from bankruptcy, after the failures of the Intellivision. Although she didn’t play video games, Barad was eager to try out this new glove technology. She put on the glove and faced off against the first opponent in “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!,” Glass Joe. With just one punch, she knocked him out. Barad, ecstatic from the exeperience, put the glove down. “This is amazing,” she said. “I want to do this.” Thus, Mattel and Abrams/Gentile Entertainment teamed up to create the very first virtual reality consumer product ever. VPL and AGE would receive royalties on every glove sold. Executives were eager to get the product out. They asked that it be ready for Christmas of 1989. Engineers were skeptical. They had only five months to turn a $9,000 device into an affordable Nintendo controller. To measure finger bending, the VPL Data Glove used optic fibers. Mattel and AGE engineers replaced this with flex sensors that used a semi-conductive ink, which was commonly used to build flexible circuit boards. This ink allowed the calculation of flexion in each finger. The Data Glove also used expensive magnetic sensors to track the glove’s position. Engineers replaced this with a much less expensive technology known as ultrasonic tracking, which was used by several different VR devices at the time, including VPL’s own Z-glove. So here’s a brief explanation on how ultrasonic tracking works. The glove itself has two speakers on each side of the hand. Each speaker sends out a beep to three different receivers. Each receiver notes the time of arrival of the sound, which allows calculation of the glove’s X, Y, and Z position, as well as roll, and yaw. If all times are the same, it knows the glove is in the center. In what Christopher Gentile described as
a “total fire drill,” engineers at Mattel and AGE worked around the clock on a prototype. In less than five months, it was finished. The $9,000 VPL Data Glove was reduced to a device that would cost Mattel $23 to produce. It was called the “Power Glove,” and it would retail for $80. There was one last hurdle for Mattel: getting Nintendo to officially license the product. Mattel executives, including Jill Barad, flew to Nintendo headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to pitch the Power Glove. The two companies fought like cats and dogs. Nintendo was hesitant to back the product, claiming it was gimmicky and too difficult for children to set up. Mattel argued that the Power Glove was a revolutionary product and would only help grow the Nintendo brand. After several back and forths, Nintendo finally agreed to license the product on the condition that Mattel include extra instructions to set up the device. The Power Glove was on track to be released in time for the 1989 holiday season. The Power Glove brought the NES into the world of virtual reality, but it was clear that games would need to be made that took advantage of the technology. Mattel simply didn’t give themselves enough time. Their plan was two-fold. First, the Power Glove would have to be compatible with all existing Nintendo games. One employee went through every single game, while a programmer created an application that would translate the gestures into button presses that the game expected. Second, Mattel would begin developing new titles that would work specifically with the glove. In order to have a Power Glove game done by launch, Mattel bought the right to Beam Software’s “Bad Street Brawler,” a simple side-scrolling beat-em-up. Glove controls were added to the game. It would be the first game in the “Power Glove Gaming Series” and would launch alongside the glove. Power Glove game development was entrusted to one man at Mattel: a game designer by the name of Novak. Novak began his career at Sega, but after the video game crash of 1983, he did contract work for the U.S. Navy. Eventually, he joined Mattel to design the toy-to-TV interface used on the “Captain Power” TV show. But his true passion was making video games. Novak was in the room when Christopher Gentile first demonstrated the VPL Data Glove hooked up to the Nintendo Entertainment System. He thought it was, quote: “the stupidest thing in the world.” Market research suggested gamers played Nintendo for one-and-a-half to two hours per session. Novak couldn’t see anyone using the glove for that long. Despite his opposition to the Power Glove, this was his chance to finally make video games again. Mattel put him in charge of coming up with game concepts for the glove. For almost two weeks, he simply stared at his hand, writing down actions it could perform. Opening a door. Pulling a lever. Forming a fist. Eventually, he settled on an idea where the player would use his hand to knock a ball around a 3D space. This would be known as “Super Glove Ball,” the only game released that was specifically designed to use the Power Glove. It was developed by a game studio in the United Kingdom called Rare. The game wouldn’t be released until October of 1990, almost a full year after the launch of the Power Glove. “As a toy, it was a great-looking item that strapped onto the back of the hand, with finger guides, straps that went around the wrist, and extended up the forearm, buttons, and other controls. As VR, it was minimal. As a game, it was very attractive. I found it to be a more-than-mildly amusing way to box with a video game heavyweight.” Howard Rheingold. In October of 1989, the Power Glove was officially released, and quickly became one of the hottest Christmas items. In just six weeks, it sold more than 654,000 units. Further hype came from the movie “The Wizard,” which featured an infamous scene of hot-shot Nintendo player Lucas Barton, playing “Rad Racer” with the Power Glove. In some areas, demand for the glove caused the price to rise as high as $139. Ladies and gentlemen, the Power Glove! This the large version, but they did also make a small version. The glove is also right-handed only. Mattel did discuss making a left-handed version, but only 10 percent of the population is left-handed, so that idea was scrapped. If anybody comes to you claiming that they own a left-handed Power Glove, they’re probably lying. The Power Glove came with two manuals. The first was an instruction booklet which contained a comic to explain how to set up the glove and receivers, as well as information on the programs you could load for each game. The second booklet provided even more instruction and detail on the programs. The first thing you’ll need to set up are the receivers. They plug into the NES controller port and can be a little tricky. They fall off the television fairly easily and if you have a curved TV, it’s even more difficult. The glove itself plugs into a box on the receiver cord. It attaches to your hand with Velcro straps and contains a keypad on the forearm. This is where you can program various game codes, re-calibrate the position, and change turbo functions. There’s also a fully-functional NES controller. When you choose which game you want to play, you’ll have to refer to the Power Glove Program Guide to determine which program to use. If you’re playing a game in the Power Glove Gaming Series, such as “Bad Street Brawler” and “Super Glove Ball,” the game automatically knows which program to use. As for functionality, well… …it’s poor. The Power Glove just doesn’t work very well with most games and that was probably the downfall of the device. A standard controller is almost instinctual and allows for quick, precise controls. That’s just extremely difficult to do with the Power Glove. When Christopher Gentile pitched the glove, he mentioned that to see the benefits, Mattel had to design games specifically for the glove. Only one was ever released and that was Novak’s “Super Glove Ball.” It’s not perfect, but this is probably the best example of what the Power Glove is supposed to do. Unfortunately, the glove lacks consistency. The potential was there, but the technology wasn’t. If the glove had been given more development time and better software, it may have been a different story. After the Power Glove’s launch, one thing became very clear to gamers: there were simply no games for it. “Bad Street Brawler,” the launch title, didn’t really show what the glove was capable of and the backwards compatibility with older NES titles was bad. Many users experienced a lag time with their older games. Some gloves failed to recognize hand movement altogether. Word spread quickly, and kids soon stuffed the glove in their closet or under their bed. Sales declined throughout 1990, and by October, the product was discontinued. That same month, “Super Glove Ball” was released, which received rave reviews from the non-gaming press. “Popular Science” chose it for their “Top 100 Best of What’s New” list for 1990. The gaming scene, however, was luke warm. Novak had other games planned for the Power Glove that never saw the light of day, including “Glove Pilot,” “Manipulator,” and “Terror of Tech Town,” all adventure-based games where players could interact with the environment. But by the release of “Super Glove Ball,” everyone, including Mattel, was ready to move on from the Power Glove. In Japan, the glove was released by a company called Pax, and sold poorly. None of the Power Glove-specific games were released in Japan, which made it a hard sell as an alternative controller. Pax soon declared bankruptcy after its release. Other companies tried to cash in on motion controls at the same time. Brøderbund released U-Force, a bulky controller that looked like a futuristic laptop. Players would use the motion of their hands to control games. Like the Power Glove, the U-Force also failed to catch on. Overall, the Power Glove is considered a critical and commercial failure, but it’s not like Mattel lost money. Initially, Mattel expected to generate about $60 million on the product. But after hype from the Consumer Electronics Show, projections doubled to 120 million. After all was said and done, the Power Glove generated about $88 million. The Power Glove is important in many ways. It was the first device that really brought virtual reality to the consumer. Many technology enthusiasts have used the Power Glove as a homebrew device to experiment with their own ideas. “Robot Chicken” animator Dillon Markey modified the glove to help him with production. Musicians such as Side Brain use the glove for their DJ compositions. The Power Glove is also a mainstay in pop culture. Several TV shows, movies, and bands reference the device. The glove also had a huge impact on the gaming industry. In 2006, Nintendo released the Wii console, which featured a remote with motion controls, a similar concept to the Power Glove. It went on to become one of the best-selling consoles of all time and introduced gaming to a whole new audience. Microsoft and Sony soon followed with their own motion control devices. Today, virtual reality in gaming is coming back in a big way with the Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, and Sony’s Project Morpheus. It’s crazy to think that it all started over 25 years ago with the Power Glove. It’s not the greatest toy ever released, but it’s certainly an important one. That’s all for this episode of Gaming Historian. Thanks for watching.