The Power Glove Lives!

Matt Barton's picture
Author: Matt Barton and David Torre
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout: Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice

The history of videogame controllers is a pretty dull affair. We truly haven’t come very far since the first videogame controller—a simple device rigged up by the Spacewar! team to spare them elbow pain while playing the first videogame, which ran on a giant mainframe computer. Though many early games used paddles or trackball controllers, the winning majority of pre-NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) games favored joysticks, while the majority of post-NES games favored game pads. Modern joysticks and game pads offer various degrees of analog and digital circuitry with very precise control. Still, one wonders about the future of videogame controllers. Have we reached a plateau, or are more intriguing possibilities on the horizon? What we are concerned with here is a peculiar strain of what seems to be a very promising type of controller: An electronic glove that detects hand movements. Conceivably, such a device would allow players a stunning degree of control over their avatars.

Mattel's Power Glove, bottom view.
Mattel's Power Glove.

The Power Glove from Mattel, shown with wraparound television sensor, top view.
Mattel's Power Glove.

In 1989, the Mattel toy company unveiled a new product for the Nintendo Entertainment System—the infamous Power Glove. I say “infamous” because the Glove did not live up to most young player’s expectations, especially those who had seen The Wizard, a movie starring Fred Savage that glorified Nintendo and suggested that the Power Glove had serious virtual reality capabilities. The film’s antagonist uses the Power Glove to play a flawless game of Rad Racer. Most kids were under the false impression that their Power Gloves would offer them unprecedented control over their videogames, too. In fact, the Power Glove lived a very short life on the NES, and remains a fairly obscure device in videogame history1, though it still serves an important role in a few modern low-budget virtual reality applications.

The Power Glove is able to detect finger motion and “wrist roll” via a simple ultra-sonic detection system. The glove emits sounds (inaudible to humans) that are detected by a unit that wraps around the outside of the television. One problem is that the detection system’s "microphones" are of inferior quality, and a significant amount of distortion results. Players found that controlling games like Ninja Gaiden was more difficult with the Power Glove than with the standard NES controller. Another problem is that Nintendo’s original Entertainment System is not technologically sophisticated enough to handle the three-dimensional environments that could truly take advantage of a device like the Power Glove, despite Mattel's intriguing attempt with Super Glove Ball, a type of handball simulation that was the only game to specifically utilize the Glove's features. Needless to say, players were never able to achieve the fantastic effects shown in The Wizard, and Mattel eventually abandoned the product.

The P5 Glove.
The P5 Glove.

Over a decade later, a new company with roots in the creation of the original Power Glove, is trying out a new version of the technology. That company is Essential Reality. Essential Reality has made some broad claims about the potential applications of its new P5 Glove:

Brandish a mighty sword in a video game, walk through an online room, or pick up objects on screen - with the power of P5, not in, but on your hands, you can fully harness the potential of today's lifelike 3D and virtual gaming environments like never before.

The P5 Glove does not work with audio signals like Mattel’s Power Glove, nor is it intended for a humble videogame console like the NES. Instead, it tracks the finger movements with an optical system—infrared signals rather than sound waves. It offers six degrees of tracking—x, y, z, yaw, pitch, and roll. The device is designed to be compatible with the Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh operating systems. Essential Reality has prepared some impressive demos that show players using the P5 to navigate first-person shooter games. The device has also appeared on Tech TV and The History Channel—snippets are included with the demos on Essential Reality’s homepage. Unfortunately, game development for the P5 is lagging, though some companies are offering custom patches for the P5, including Lionheart Studios’ popular God-sim Black and White, which seems an especially fitting choice.

What are the problems with the P5? Well, as anyone can imagine after watching the demonstrations or actually using the NES Power Glove, holding one’s hand up in front of the sensor can get quite tiring after an extended period of time. Another problem is that the P5 and other low-end virtual reality devices cannot convey the sensation of touch to the player. How can such a device determine that one is trying to pick up an apple from a table rather than smash or knock it off? If game makers really wanted to allow players to experience grasping a sword, they will need a more sophisticated (and expensive) device than the P5. These facts may make the P5 unacceptable for long-term PC use, but the potential for arcade games - considering that the average arcade game lasts from three to five minutes per play - could be an exciting new offering for those operators desperately searching for ways to draw visitors.

Visitors to modern videogame arcades - at least those familiar with the arcades of the 1980's - are often struck by the number of novelty games and electro-mechanical machines occupying spaces formerly shared by a string of Ms. Pac-Man or Donkey Kong machines. Almost all modern arcade machines feature an elaborate cabinet with an expensive control system; the idea seems to be that arcade machines should offer an experience that cannot easily be duplicated by today’s powerful videogame consoles. Modern videogame arcades are stuffed with networked racing simulators complete with steering wheels, pedals, and gear shifts; shooting games sporting pistols and rifles with vibration and recoil; pinball machines; fire-fighting simulators with virtual fire hoses, and, of course, those omnipresent Dance Dance Revolution dancing games. As a result, many see today's arcade as more amusement park than game center.

What is the P5’s real potential? It’s hard to say. If the goal is immersing the player in a more corporeal gaming experience, the answer is probably not much. There are and have been many other devices that arguably detect hand and body movement more accurately than any VR glove. Some are Konami’s arcade Para-Para Paradise, Police 911, and Mocap Boxing, as well as Sony’s home PlayStation 2 Eye Toy. These games and devices often rely on a camera’s detection of movement rather than sound or infrared triangulation. While the P5 is certainly a chic new controller, and sure to make a splash at gaming parties, most reviewers seem to value it more for its novelty than its possible utility.

Other Power Glove and P5 Resources:
Glove Files. Some (dated) articles and materials related to Mattel's Power Glove.

A review of the P5 glove by Ala Shiban.


1Broderbund released another strange controller for the NES called the UForce. The UForce promised to be a "hands-free" controller. The only review I could find for this device was not kind.