How the Nintendo Power Glove Worked

The Power Glove promised a futuristic gaming experience … but it didn’t really deliver.
© Matt Mechtley, Creative Commons/Wikimedia Commons, Used Under CC BY-ND 2.0 License

"I love the Power Glove. It's so bad!" So says the antagonist Lucas Barton, as he shows off his Power Glove to awestruck bystanders during a scene in the 1989 kid flick "The Wizard." In 1980s slang, bad meant good, but in hindsight and without '80s context, his words might now be taken more literally.

The Power Glove was, in short, a virtual reality glove meant to be used as a motion-activated controller with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The idea was that this amazing glove would detect wrist tilt and finger wiggles to dictate onscreen action.

In the movie, Barton used the Power Glove to steer his way through a game called "Rad Racer." The movie was less of a cinematic masterpiece and more of a lengthy promotional spot for the glove (and a bevy of other products). But what it lacked in artistic value, it made up for in marketing power.

The same went for the glove's spotty functionality. The Power Glove has, shall we say, a checkered legacy.

The Power Glove was awesome. The Power Glove was also horrible. It was a glimpse into the future of video gaming. It was also an exasperating exercise in the misapplication of technology. Kids clamored for the Power Glove; their parents grimaced and acquiesced. And after kids actually tried having fun with the object of their gaming desire, they were the ones left wishing they'd never seen this technological abomination.

It was a gaming disaster and infamous geek cultural icon. Such is the epitaph for a device that looked fun but actually made your life hell. The innovative glove grossed nearly $90 million, but somehow wound up as a financial flop.

There were many add-on accessories for the NES. The most famous and widely used was probably the Zapper, a pistol that made possible popular titles such as "Duck Hunt." There was also the Power Pad, which you used for games that involved running and jumping. There was even the R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), a small robot that worked with Nintendo's Robot Series games.

And then there was the Power Glove. On its futuristic surface, it seemed like a great idea. It foresaw an era in which natural body movements controlled game action instead of a handheld controller. But it would go on to become one of the most despised (and now collectible) controllers ever.

Fiber Optics Fist

The fingers of the Power Glove contained fiber optic tubes to track user movements.
The fingers of the Power Glove contained fiber optic tubes to track user movements.
© Piero Cruciatti/Demotix/Corbis

Although it was designed for the NES, it wasn't Nintendo that devised and created the Power Glove. It was actually conceived by Abrams/Gentile Entertainment (AGE), and in the U.S. it was manufactured by toy giant Mattel in 1989. Each glove sold for around $100, and the company managed to sell about 100,000 units before people realized it didn't work.

AGE wanted the product prototyped and manufactured as quickly as possible. They worked with Mattel to complete hardware and software simultaneously so that they could cash in on the NES's phenomenal popularity. They finished Power Glove in less than five months.

The glove plugged directly into the game console and didn't require any other power sources. The forearm of the glove featured a directional pad, action buttons and a bevy of programmable buttons that you could use for things like special finishing moves. Happily, Power Glove came in two sizes. Rather unfairly, it was made only in right-handed versions.

The system worked thanks to two primary components, the glove and three microphones on an L-bracket that you mounted to your television. From two small speakers, the glove emitted ultrasonic beeps inaudible to human ears.

The microphones mounted near the TV picked up the sounds, and the system's CPU calculated the relative distance of the glove depending on how much time it took for the sound to reach the microphones. With that data, the CPU triangulated the glove's location and translated it to onscreen action.

From a distance of 5 feet (1.5 meters), the system had an accuracy to within about a quarter of an inch (a little more than half a centimeter). It worked quickly, updating the glove's position about 30 times per second.

The glove also tracked finger movements. Fiber optic tubes were laced into the first four fingers of the glove (the pinky finger was considered redundant and thus left sensorless and lonely).

As you flexed your fingers, light through the fiber optic tube became more constricted. A light sensor at the base of the glove detected the loss of light and determined where and how far the tube was bent.

Because the sensors were a low-cost and rudimentary variety, the system could basically pick up only four finger positions: fully extended, fully curled, and two in-between positions. Accordingly, the accuracy of the system was low, particularly when compared to similar products like the industrially designed Data Glove, which worked much better but also cost, ahem, around $10,000.

The Farcical Fist

For $100, players could reach new levels of frustration.
For $100, players could reach new levels of frustration.
©Digital Game Museum/Creative Commons/flickr, Used Under CC BY-ND 2.0 License

The Power Glove's top-notch marketing transfixed a generation of young gamers. Everyone wanted to strap on the glove that surged with blue electrical pulses and vanquished foes at every turn in TV commercials. It was a chance to be a superhero of sorts. Yet within minutes of unpacking the glove, most kids felt an unsettling disappointment.

The Power Glove simply didn't work. It was supposed to be fun, but instead it made gaming an exercise in futility. Low-quality parts were part of the problem.

In 1989, $100 was a sizable chunk of money for parents to blow on a single gaming system accessory. For reference, in 2015 that $100 would be closer to $200. Yet even at the $100 price point, Mattel was struggling to keep the device affordable.

To maintain a realistic price, Mattel stripped the Power Glove down and used the cheapest hardware components they could find. This had the desired effect of minimizing the price per unit, but it raised the frustration level to maximum.

The consumer-level quality of the microphones was problematic. Issues with distortion lowered the accuracy of position detection and subsequently made it much harder to control your character.

The product couldn't track minute move movements at all. It could only follow big, sweeping gestures, and even then, not very well. Lack of precision meant you wound up hitting the reset button over and over again, recalibrating the glove in a futile attempt to make it work more like a piece of sophisticated technology and less like a failed prototype.

Then, there were the games. To get full 3-D motion, the Power Glove needed games programmed specifically to its capabilities. Problem was, only two titles were ever released for these features; with all other games, the Power Glove was basically shoehorned into playability, and the results were inaccurate character control and a lot of rolled eyes.

There were two games created specifically for the Power Glove Gaming Series: "Bad Street Brawler" and "Super Glove Ball." Neither title made any money for their creators, primarily because the glove worked so poorly.

"Super Glove Ball" was a lot like "Breakout." It entailed bouncing a ball to small colored bricks over and over again while avoiding some enemies.

"Bad Street Brawler" was a side-to-side scrolling street-fighting game in the vein of "Double Dragon," only minus the fun. It was endlessly repetitive, and the glove's lack of responsiveness made it a chore to execute even the three basic punches and kicks.

Taking the Gloves Off

Today, you can find power gloves on display as relics of gaming history.
Today, you can find power gloves on display as relics of gaming history.
©Doug Kline/Creative Commons/flickr, Used Under CC BY-ND 2.0 License

Even the Power Glove's included literature reflected the panic with which the manufacturer threw this product together.

Let's start with some silliness straight out of the product manual. The microphones were mounted to a so-called L-bar that rested on top of the TV. This (obviously L-shaped) bar had to be somewhat level with respect to the TV. To ensure that it was high enough, the Nintendo user manual helpfully suggests that you pile "books, boxes or other stackable things on top of your TV to lift up the L-Bar." Alternately, you could just rest the L-Bar in front of the TV on "a chair, a table or even large box." Say what you will about the Power Glove being a forward-thinking gaming product, but it had a long way to go in terms of feng shui.

Before you could use the glove with certain games, you had to configure it using program codes. The first program code was basic and featured fundamental gaming controls. Move your hand left and right to move the character in the same direction; ditto for up and down. To trigger the A and B buttons, you flexed your thumb and index finger, respectively.

There were other programs preset for specific gaming functions. Want to pilot a plane? Preset No. 5 allowed you to bank right and left and also pull backward and forward to control your onscreen wings.

But you had to remember which movement would translate into the proper onscreen jump, kick or punch with the program code you were using. Many of the glove's programs were actually so counterintuitive in this regard that Mattel provided an illustrated guide for each of the 14 program codes. Even for hardcore, everyday gamers, this unwieldy system was difficult if not impossible to remember in the heat of a fast-paced game.

Because the back side of the glove had regular gamepad controls, such as directional arrows and action buttons, you could also use it just as you would a regular controller. It was likely the only way to use the Power Glove with any consistency.

Five-Fingered Finale

Unlike the Power Glove, the Wiimote controller for the Wii gaming system was quite successful.
Unlike the Power Glove, the Wiimote controller for the Wii gaming system was quite successful.
© LoooZaaa/iStockphoto

As a game controller for the NES, the Power Glove was a failure. But as a captivating piece of technology and marketing, the Power Glove left an indelible mark on gaming society and our larger culture, too.

As evidence, even though the glove didn't work very well, it spawned products that actually do. The Nintendo Wii controller and the Microsoft Kinect are examples of successful gesture-based gaming, and without the Power Glove as inspiration, who knows if they would've ever come into existence.

Hollywood types have regularly weaved Power Glove references into their films. For example, in "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare," Freddy Krueger swaps out his signature knife-tipped glove for the Power Glove as he torments a potential victim. He twists the Nintendo sales pitch a bit and says, "Now I'm playing with power!"

Power Glove has been used in all sorts of pop-culture-tinged art projects. Electronic musicians don the glove to create funky new tracks (and to make a lasting impression on stage). Geeks hack the glove to serve new purposes.

A speed metal band named Powerglove makes loud, metal versions of video game songs and at the end of their concerts, the band shows off a vintage Power Glove. One professional animator added a custom circuit board and Bluetooth wireless networking to his glove and uses it to capture stop-motion scenes.

Decades after its introduction, the Power Glove is probably more useful as a retro fashion accessory or an art project than it ever was as a video game controller. Yet its cyborg-tinged design and unforgettable commercials were ingrained into the memories of millions of gamers — and in that sense, the Power Glove was more successful than anyone could've dreamed.

How the Nintendo Power Glove Worked

Author's Note: How the Nintendo Power Glove Worked

My first gaming console was the Atari 5200. This system had the dubious distinction of premiering one of the worst controllers ever — a rectangular plastic box with a joystick that never remained centered and sloppy, unresponsive buttons. In spite of that, we still managed to have an amazing amount of fun with that Atari. Sadly, most Power Glove owners can't say the same.

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Sources

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