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The Wizard, The Power Glove, and Children in Peril

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Why They Made This Crazy Movie

Released in 1989, The Wizard was a major motion picture that doubled as a promotional vehicle for Nintendo products. It's quite likely the only motion picture to require a "Power Glove Consultant" (for the record, this consultant is named only as "Novak" in the credits), and the movie is crammed full of product placement -- primarily for the Nintendo Entertainment System and its games, but also for a bevy of partner brands, including Hostess (a major plot point involves hitching a ride in a Hostess Brands delivery van, plus dialogue regarding Ho-Hos®), Universal Studios (the studio actually produced the movie and conveniently set most of the third act in its theme park), Cosmopolitan (seen in closeup several times), Vision Street Wear (seen on many of the hipper characters), Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, and countless others.

The Movie

As a memory from my childhood, The Wizard is totally awesome -- it's about video games! There's that crazy gamer kid with the Power Glove! Awesome! But as a movie, The Wizard is a creepy mess.

It's a strange mix of styles, with thirteen-year-old kids trading cornball wisecracks that would still seem odd coming from actors three times their age. What's worse, the old-timey dialogue is often weirdly ribald, though maybe that's unintentional. At one point, thirteen-year-olds Haley (Jenny Lewis) and Corey (Fred Savage) share this exchange, while looking for adult marks they can hustle playing video games:

Haley: "We've gotta find someone dumb enough to suck one."

Corey: [Upon seeing two salesmen playing an arcade game, the game cabinet plastered with a gigantic Tom Petty poster.] "Perfect, they're salesmen! Wait here!"

"So Bad" (the Technology)

It's So Bad - The Power GloveOkay, so it's dated, but from when? The 50s? (Many plot points involve hitch-hiking, riding buses great distances, living a drifter lifestyle, eating in diners, and even sleeping in a drive-in movie theater projection booth.) A more 80's line comes when Lucas Barton (the primary teen antagonist) says: "I love the Power Glove. It's so bad." The only real appearance of the Power Glove in the movie comes just before that line, in an extended product demo where Barton shows off how good (sorry, bad) he is at Rad Racer. Lucas also spends a few lines of dialogue demonstrating the breadth of the NES videogame lineup, as he casually mentions he has 97 titles for the console (and apparently is an expert at all of them). According to unverifiable internet lore, the sounds emitted by the Power Glove during the Rad Racer scene are the five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That's pretty bad.

The movie also shows tons of Nintendo's PlayChoice-10 arcade games, which allowed gamers to play from a selection of NES titles for a limited time. While I do remember seeing these in arcades, in the world of the movie, the PlayChoice-10 is conveniently located in virtually all public places, from restaurants to bus depots to...other restaurants. There's a lot of action in the second act set in restaurants and diners because of the requirement that NES games be played frequently. When a PlayChoice-10 is unavailable or utterly implausible (as in the interior motel scenes), Christian Slater (!!) plugs in the NES he carries around, just so he can play games on the road (he apparently also carries at least the TMNT game and Zelda II). Oh, did I fail to mention that Christian Slater appears in this movie? He's the older brother of Corey and older half-brother of Jimmy (Luke Edwards), and serves only as a comedic baffle for the father figure (Beau Bridges), who otherwise would be driving around looking for his runaway kids by himself. I should note that Slater had just done Heathers in 1988, so this seems like an odd career choice.

The Wizard was the first look (for U.S. gamers, anyway) at Super Mario Bros. 3 -- although it was available in Japan the year before. Interestingly, the word "Nintendo" is rarely spoken in the movie -- the only time I heard it actually mentioned was during a brief scene where we see the hip cubicle farm behind the Nintendo Power Line (a paid phone help service NES gamers could call for tips). Don't get me wrong, Nintendo games and products are shown constantly, but the script seems to tiptoe around actually using the word "Nintendo." Even the Nintendo Power magazine is retitled Power Magazine in the movie.

What Does the Power Glove Actually Do?

Power Glove

Let's leave aside the movie for a moment and talk about that Power Glove. It was released in the U.S. in 1989, though it wasn't actually created by Nintendo. It was produced by Mattel in the US, and it had an ambitious goal: replace the NES controller with a more natural interface. Sound familiar, Wii users? Indeed, the Wii controller succeeded with some of the technical areas the Power Glove pioneered -- just a couple decades later. The Power Glove was actually based on an earlier class of peripherals called Datagloves, which were too expensive to reach the mass market.

The Power Glove had sensors built into the fingers (minus the pinky, which tends to follow the ring finger's movement), which allowed very basic hand gestures to be recognized. In addition to the finger tracking, the glove could be tracked in 2D or 3D space using ultrasonic microphones and emitters, allowing some Wii-like behavior...but the 3D space tracking required a game title to be written specifically for the glove; only two of those were actually released. The glove also had a modified NES controller strapped to the wrist, with a series of ten hotkeys that could be programmed to do useful things (think "finishing moves," but then think, "oh, right, NES"). One of the finishing moves for the glove's use in the real world was that you had to hold your whole arm up in a limited space -- which gets tiring really fast. Oh, and have you noted that it's only available in a right-handed model? At the end of the day, the product was way ahead of its time (in that it envisioned a more natural mode of interacting with games) but so technically limited that it hardly made any sense.

You can read more about the technical problems of the Power Glove from this 90's-era FAQ. You might also enjoy this 20th Anniversary fan-made mod (watch the video), with schematics available.

The Trailer

...And, back to the movie! Seems like a lighthearted romp, eh? Guess what it was titled in other countries (according to IMDB and Wikipedia): Joy Stick Heroes in Germany, Sweet Road in Japan, The Video Game Genius in Brazil, Vidéokid in France, and Game Over in Finland.

The Plot and Other Problems

What's weirdest about The Wizard is its complicated relationship with gambling, death, violence, and mental health problems. The plot is instigated by a repeat-runaway boy (Jimmy) whose diagnosis isn't specified in the movie, though it's pretty clear he's supposed to be an autistic savant and also suffering from some sort of undiagnosed emotional shock over the death of his twin sister. Jimmy is in a mental institution. The plot involves Corey busting Jimmy out of the nuthouse and getting him to "California" (the only word Jimmy can speak for the first half of the movie) from Utah as they're chased by a bounty hunter whose primary job is retrieving lost kids. It's not explained why law enforcement isn't involved, and why three prepubescent kids running around the western U.S. aren't noticed by any adults. Oh, and Haley is picked up by the half-brothers Corey and Jimmy (I won't get into why they're half-brothers; it's overly complex) as Haley is hanging out by herself in a bus depot, reading Cosmo.

The trek to California is accomplished primarily by gambling -- a series of double-your-money hustles instigated by the queerly parentless Haley. We actually get to see Haley's trailer home at one point, though her father (a trucker) is on the road. In addition to video game-related hustles, the trio end up at one point in an actual casino, wherein Haley's skill at craps allows an adult ("Spankey," a mentally challenged "trucker friend" of her father's, played by Frank McRae) to win hundreds. It's later revealed that Haley's deceased mother had a gambling problem, which apparently led to Haley's hustling skills. Corey's mother is also dead. And Jimmy's sister/Corey's half-sister? She's dead, too. What?! Never mind that now. We have to get to California.

During all of this action, we see some troubling stuff -- the trio are roughed up and robbed by a gang of older kids, they're robbed by cattle farmers, and at one point Haley screams "He touched my breast!" to get the bounty hunter out of the way. There's also a series of violent encounters between the kids' father and the bounty hunter, in which they try to destroy each other's cars, while onlookers gaze complacently at a series of serious car crashes and sip beer. The universe of The Wizard is perversely unaware of kids as entities in need of protection and social norms related to public violence.

Video Armageddon

Anyway, our heroes end up at Universal Studios in Los Angeles (after a brief detour in Reno, which appears to be a brand partner in the movie due to its repeated hype in dialogue and an extended intro montage...), where "Video Armageddon" is underway. This event is a loosely disguised version of the Nintendo World Championships, which debuted the year after the movie. Jimmy fulfills his destiny and somehow everything is fine. Oh, there's also a moment (which I won't spoil in any great depth) involving the Cabazon Dinosaurs explaining Jimmy's "California" thing. The kid's basically Rain Man but for video games, minus all the real human emotions.

In Conclusion

I set out to write a wacky nostalgia piece about Nintendo's attempt to market the Power Glove via this childhood movie that I thought I remembered pretty well. What I found out by re-watching the movie was that there's way more going on here than just marketing -- this movie dances around some pretty heavy/intense stuff, but never deals with any of it. For example, at the end, it's unclear what will happen to Haley, who, as far as her father knows, has been AWOL for days. It sure looks like she's going to go and live with the Corey/Jimmy/Christian Slater/Beau Bridges family...but...uh...she already has a father and a home. But, hey, it's a movie, make up your own ending.

I'll leave you with some odd trivia: apparently Tobey Maguire makes a cameo as one of Lucas's henchmen. Also, there was a Wizard reunion in 2008 in which it was revealed that an hour of footage was cut from the movie -- that likely accounts for some of the plot issues. (This interview with the director sheds some light on the tacked-on plot points as well.)

Also, of course, Jenny Lewis went on to form one of my favorite bands, Rilo Kiley. You can watch The Wizard (in HD!) on Netflix streaming, if you dare, and DVDs are also available.

Follow Chris Higgins on Twitter for more stories like this one.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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