Sometimes to succeed, you first need to fail. Nintendo learned this lesson in 1989 with their “Power Glove.” The concept was that video gamers could use hand gestures to move their on-screen characters. This concept was effectively conveyed through their advertising campaign, which made the power glove’s debut highly anticipated. The glove was produced in the US by Mattel, and several Nintendo video games were designed specifically for use with the power glove, while others could be played by inputting codes into the glove.
Unfortunately, the technology wasn’t available for Nintendo to effectively execute their idea. The Power Glove worked by containing ultrasonic transmitters on the glove that needed to be calibrated to three clunky receivers that you attached to your TV—two on top and one on the side. Once calibrated (something that took a relatively long time), the player used a combination of traditional video game control buttons and finger gestures to manipulate the on-screen character. In execution, due to hardware limitations and low digital resolution, the finger motions often didn’t work and the controls were confusing; as the video below video illustrates. The glove was a huge critical and commercial failure.
The Power Glove’s concept remained sound, however, and Nintendo continued to pursue gesture-based technology earnestly in 2001. Nintendo’s next gesture based video game controller—the Wiimote—debuted in 2006 and was a huge success. The Wii console released with the Wiimote uses an optical receiver bar on top of a television to sync with the Wiimote’s transmitter. The Wiimote is shaped like a wand for right- or left-handed use, contains considerably less buttons than the power glove did, and includes a wrist strap. The Wii’s success drove competitors to launch their own gesture-based controllers in 2010—the Microsoft Kinect and PlayStation Move.
In addition to being the basis of successful gesture-based video game controllers, creative individuals have repurposed the Power Glove for other innovative uses. Electronic music performer Side Brain (Yeuda Ben-Atar) mapped the Power Glove to the music software Ableton Live to perform electronic music in a unique way.
Greg Sowell built a LED suit and uses the Power Glove to control the suit’s light and color patterns.
Stop-motion animator Dillon Markey rewired his Power Glove to communicate via Bluetooth with his stop-motion software to help him animate more efficiently. Fourteen-year-old Easton LaChappelle built a robotic arm out of LEGOS, toy airplane motors, fishing line, and electrical tubing. While showing his arm at a state science fair, he had a conversation with a girl with an $80,000 prosthetic arm that inspired him to purse a low-cost prosthetic robotic arm. To control his prosthetic robotic arm made primarily of 3-D printed parts, he used Nintendo Power Glove sensors to convert real hand movements into robotic motion. By age 19 he built a $350 arm that could be controlled by thoughts through an EEG headset. In his 2013 TEDx talk he describes iterations of the arm and his eventual employment by NASA on the Robonaut Project.
The Power Glove may have been a huge flop, but it was a failure that resulted in successful inventions not only in gesture-based video game controllers but also in repurposed power gloves. It may also be the inspiration for many more inventions. Wearable technology is closer and closer to becoming a reality, with many prototypes of gadget gloves already in existence. The concept of using just your hands to game is too appealing. It seems almost certain that a new and improved “Power Glove” will be part of video gaming in the future.