The idea of being able to magically control devices with every twitch has always been something of an engineering holy grail. For every Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect, and Playstation Move, successes like those have crawled ahead on the back of countless good-intentioned ideas that turned out to be tragic mistakes. Mattel’s Power Glove was one of those mistakes.
But back in 1989 when it was introduced for the NES (and given Nintendo’s Seal of Approval as a show of support), it rode the hype train that Nintendo continued minting moneyhat tickets for.
The roots of some of the tech that went into the Power Glove can be traced as far back as 1977 with the Sayre Glove by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory. Later, a chap by the name of Thomas Zimmerman patented optical flex sensors (in 1982) that would later be used in his DataGlove, a PC-based device sold by the first company to make it available to the general public, VPL, in 1986.
That is, if you could afford the thousands of dollars it went for (it’s been quoted at $9,000, $8,800, or even $15,000 depending on the publication) that it had apparently been priced at as a tool for the burgeoning VR market in high-end computing (such as at NASA) and manufacturing. Sculpt CG or manipulate remote robot arms with a glove? Those were only two things that the DataGlove was hoped to be used for and represented a bleeding silicon edge for computer technology at the time.
Reprinted over at this fan shrine to the Power Glove, an article that appeared in Design News in December, 1989, by Dana Gardner recounts the story behind Nintendo’s high-tech mitten whose origins started at a company named Abrams Gentile Entertainment (AGE). The company had seen the DataGlove and wanted to bring something like it to Nintendo’s console and bought the license for the hardware from VPL in 1987. Nintendo was apparently impressed by the tech and gave the project its blessing, if not direct support, but Mattel would step in with their muscle. Mattel’s worldwide distribution network allowed them to bring the Nintendo to regions in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. That same network would now serve up Power Gloves for the US market (with another outfit, PAX, handling Japan with its own variant of the Power Glove which really didn’t differ that much from Mattel’s).
To keep kids from trying to convince parents that a glove was much more fun than a car, cost reduction involved trying to find the right pieces to replace the incredibly expensive (and complex) optic and magnetic sensors used in VPL’s DataGlove. Ultrasonic devices, the same tech used in computer pens to move cursors around on screens at the time, were used instead and bendable circuits were used for the fingers to detect input. As Mattel and AGE engineered hammered out the hardware, Gary Yamron and Hal Barger with their team at Image Design & Marketing sought to create its distinctive look.
The glove also had a D-pad on the back of its wrist and rows of buttons that were used to activate specific programs for certain games. They were a lot like custom settings so if you wanted to play Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! with the Glove, you’d tell it to use Program 7.
In 1988, after five months of work, a prototype was finally brought out. In 1989, it hit the holiday season and was expected to sell a million units. There was even a movie masquerading as a commercial that had come out at the end of 1989 called The Wizard that gave the Power Glove magical properties such as working far better than it did in reality.
The Power Glove, unfortunately, was notoriously terrible as a replacement for gamepads. For one, the Power Glove was a “one size fits all” type of glove so if your hands were too small (or too big), that could make bending the fingers and getting the right input from them a nightmare. The sensors used in conjunction with the glove to pick up the ultrasonic signals were particularly sensitive to the interference from the TV that they had to be placed around. The finger input was also particularly dodgy and imprecise adding to the frustration factor.
There also weren’t a lot of games that were specifically made to take advantage of the Glove aside from two games, a side-scrolling beat ’em up called Bad Street Brawler and an Arkanoid-like clone, Super Glove Ball. But pointing your hand at the screen for awhile to play games with it could also get pretty tiring — especially if you tried it with an RPG.
It apparently sold only 100,000 units and word of mouth killed any hope for it to become the cutting edge, pie-in-the-sky invention that its creators hoped could have paved the way forward to replace the joystick, gamepad, mouse, and set the world on VR fire. By 1992, manufacturing ended and the Gloves were being dumped on the market faster than Vectrexes were during the Video Game Crash a year after its debut.
But hardware hackers at the time had also found the Power Glove to be useful if not as a Nintendo peripheral then as something they could use with computers much like what hackers had done with Microsoft’s Kinect in bringing the tech outside of its market-designated box. As a cheap alternative to the DataGlove, it was an ideal toy for curious programmers and engineers that didn’t have thousands of dollars socked away for a whim (or access to a facility that actually had one of these).
It still didn’t stop others from trying to create their own powergloves for PCs like Essential Reality’s P5 in 2001. And if you’ve never heard of it, that’s probably all that you need to know on how successful that effort was.
Since then, the Power Glove became something of a legend and a retro icon capturing the fun-loving insanity that Nintendo wore like a cape around itself and its console during the late 80s. It seemed that Nintendo couldn’t do any wrong and the Power Glove embodied the kind of bold magic that its games created, promising things that no one else could possibly do unless they happened to have Mario in their corner.
Even today, the Power Glove lives on if not as a full featured device, then as an oven mitt. It never lived up to the hype surrounding it but it’s one of those branches of VR’s family tree that would eventually lead up to the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft’s Kinect, and the Playstation Move. And the technology is still getting better. The Power Glove is a part of Nintendo’s world for better or worse, much like the Super Mario Bros. movie, something fondly remembered as another weapon within its arsenal that it would use as a part of Nintendo’s vanguard in its quest to conquer not only video games, but the ways in which they were seen and played.