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Original image
Chris Gentile

An Oral History of Nintendo's Power Glove

Original image
Chris Gentile

On the surface, it seemed like an impossible task. Take an $8800, NASA-approved interface glove running on $250,000 worth of computer hardware, then replicate the performance in a consumer-grade toy with parts costing less than $26.

The twist? “We had about nine months to get it done,” Chris Gentile, one of the engineers behind Mattel’s fondly-remembered but ineffectual Power Glove, tells mental_floss.

With a video game renaissance in full swing thanks to the popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the late 1980s, the Power Glove debuted in late 1989 to a willing and receptive audience. Distributed by Mattel, marketing promised players that the glove would offer a deeper, more immersive experience with all of their favorite games thanks to the gesture-based controller, which looked like something out of the future. Rear up for a right hook that could knock out Mike Tyson; bend an index finger to make Mario jump.

While hundreds of thousands of kids were delighted to see the Glove under their holiday tree, the experience didn’t quite live up to the billing. Convoluted instructions and calibration made operating it difficult; backwards-compatibility with games proved unreliable. In less than a year, the Power Glove went from one of the hottest toys on store shelves to a forgotten novelty stuffed in closets across the country.

Was it an ill-conceived peripheral rushed to market, an important step toward the virtual reality that’s now poised to overtake the entertainment industry, or both? To find out, we spoke to several of the key players involved in the Power Glove’s launch, from its inventor to the designers responsible for turning a professional-grade scientific instrument into a Toys "R" Us hot ticket—a journey that would eventually involve Michael Jackson, Rambo, and the Japanese mafia. Here's how Mattel lost its grip on what seemed like a sure thing.

I: GLOVE STORY

An early concept drawing for the Power Glove. Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

In 1976, MIT undergraduate Thomas Zimmerman was talking to a friend about their mutual desire for a new way to create music. As a child, Zimmerman had “air-conducted” orchestras and remained fascinated by the idea of a gesture-based interface.

Thomas Zimmerman (Inventor, Data Glove): I came up with the idea for a glove where you’d touch fingers to play chords. A friend of mine knew music theory and liked the idea. But I didn’t get serious about it until 1979 or 1980.

Jaron Lanier (Founder, VPL Research): I didn’t meet Tom until later. In the early 1980s, I was fascinated by the idea of using something called virtual reality to transcend language.

Will Novak (Engineer, Mattel): Jaron was the guy who coined the term “virtual reality.”

Chris Gentile (Co-Founder, Abrams/Gentile Entertainment): Jaron was one of those guys where you went, “Is he really in this industry?” He had dreadlocks, a hippie guy doing this tech stuff.

Lanier: I had come up with a video game in 1983, and suddenly had a lot of cash, giving all these visionary talks about the future. Tom came to see one and we hit it off.

Zimmerman: I had an Atari 400 that was a wonderful machine for $400. It had eight analog inputs; IBMs didn’t have that stuff. I built a glove with an optical sensor that could pick up finger bends. An LED tube was on one side and a detector on the other. I glued everything to an old gardening glove.

Lanier: It was really breathtaking in its day.

Zimmerman: The next thing I did was code a program for finger spelling, where you’d make a letter in the air and it would appear onscreen. And luckily, I had the inspiration to apply for a patent. It was a perfect interface for what we now know as the virtual world.

Lanier: We’d do demos with the Glove and incorporated as a real company in 1983.

Zimmerman: A woman I was dating left New York to go to the Oakland Ballet, and I followed her. That’s an essential part of the story. California was home to kindred spirits. I joined Atari. And, of course, I thought Atari would be interested in the glove. I showed it to my division manager there and he offered me $10,000 for it. I called a friend back in New York and he said, “That’s crazy. Don’t take it. It’s worth a lot more.”

With Lanier, Zimmerman formed Visual Programming Language (VPL) in 1983 [PDF]. Soon, his device—dubbed the Data Glove, with a patent assigned to VPL—would be in demand everywhere from Apple to NASA, and far more valuable than what Atari had been willing to spend.

Zimmerman: Atari laid us all off. I told Jaron about the glove and he said, “Wow.” He had been using a tablet and a glove sounded like a much better interface.

Lanier: We made demos—amazing, early demos that were incredible. We used 3D glasses like the kind used for movies. We made prototypes on an Amiga with stereo imagery. I wish there wasa  way to reconstruct them; they were spectacular. One was kind of like a cross between racquetball and pinball.

Zimmerman: I was making gloves for him on the side. Eventually he said, “I’ve got some funding. Come join me.” Once we were running, I designed an ultrasonic tracking device so we knew where the glove was in five dimensions. That really expanded it. Now you had a hand in 3D. By 1986, 1987, we were on the cover of Scientific American.

Lanier: We got involved in all sorts of high-end markets.

Zimmerman: Scott Fisher used to work at Atari with me, then moved to NASA. They were working on head-mount displays, so the glove was like peanut butter meeting chocolate.

Lanier: We sold to NASA and all sorts of high-end places.

Zimmerman: They wanted to control robots in space, for astronauts to do work outside of the spacecraft. The Data Glove had flex sensors with optics, which you couldn’t mass manufacture. [VPL employee] Young Harvill had come up with a way to make flex sensors out of fiber optics. It meant higher precision.

Lanier: The glove went for about $10,000.

Zimmerman: I remember watching [the 1992 Stephen King adaptation] The Lawnmower Man and the character is putting on an actual Data Glove. I’m in the audience going, “Don’t push so hard. You’ll break the fiber optics!”

With the Data Glove in demand among scientists, Lanier and Zimmerman saw potential to bring the device to a wider audience. To facilitate that, they entered into a licensing agreement with Abrams/ Gentile Entertainment (AGE), a marketing firm that had recently hit it big with Visionaries, a line of action figures packaged with holograms.

Hall: AGE licensed it from Lanier for toy applications.

Zimmerman: I believe AGE found us. It was kind of a spinoff.

Lanier: I found them. They didn’t find us. We had been toying with the idea of doing consumer-use products, but it was hit and miss.

Chris Gentile: We had a big hit getting the Rambo toy license for Coleco.

John Gentile (Co-Founder, AGE): We were working on the poster design for Rambo: First Blood Part II and thought a toy line would be interesting. The studio was like, “You know this is R-rated, right”? They had no intention of doing toys. This was like a one-man G.I. Joe army. Selling that to Coleco was the beginning of AGE.

Chris Gentile: We also licensed a hologram toy line called Visionaries for Hasbro. I had spent five years designing nuclear power plants before working for my brothers. I call those my Homer Simpson years.

A Visionaries toy hologram. Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

Lanier: The senior guy at AGE, Marty Abrams, was this larger-than-life type of personality. Very hyper. A very New York kind of guy.

John Gentile: Marty was heavily into the toy business.

Lanier: The whole point was, we were the tech and they were going to package it as an entertainment product. 

Chris Gentile: We were originally looking at 3D games and doing development for Hasbro, but they weren’t  buying it. They didn’t think a joystick would work, so we started looking for something else.

John Gentile: We thought companies like Sega and Nintendo would be interested in VR.

Chris Gentile: It was going to be a whole 3D system for Hasbro, but then Nintendo came looking for the G.I. Joe license and they thought there might be a conflict, so it was stopped.   

Lanier: To be honest, we had to sue AGE later on for our share of everything. It was a long litigation. They wanted to hold back royalties.

Chris Gentile: We did have the lawsuit and it was based on the fact that when we licensed VPL that the technology was [to be] much further developed than ultimately it was, and we therefore had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more to get it ready for commercial production. When Jaron and my brother John finally met by chance at a conference, they looked at each other, realized what both sides were spending, and decided then to settle it without the lawyers. 

Lanier: They agreed to a settlement but Marty had this one demand: He wanted me to come to every future pitch meeting AGE had. I said sure. We wound up at meetings with Michael Jackson, Imelda Marcos, and Donald Trump. It was surreal.

Chris Gentile: It was Pax that signed up Jackson for a partnership for the Japanese version of the Glove and used Jackson along with the film release of RoboCop to promote the Glove.

Hiro Sakeo, the owner of Pax, was a major real estate developer throughout Japan. Supposedly, on some of these deals, he had various types of corporations that would be minority partners in these deals, and the government discovered a couple were allegedly entities set up to launder dollars. It was not Pax directly.

II: HANDING IT OFF

Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, released in the U.S. in 1985, had quickly become one of the most popular toys of the decade. Lanier and Zimmerman were confident a stripped-down version of their Data Glove could entice consumers looking for a fresh way to interact with the console.

Lanier: Marty took us everywhere with the Glove. Really, it could’ve ended up at Hasbro. Marty liked to play them against one another.

Chris Gentile: We had an existing relationship with Mattel, having done some of the early Talking Barbies for them.

Lanier: I was really out there with the Glove. I was imagining people transforming into creatures, using their arm as a tentacle, that kind of thing. Maybe I wasn’t so in touch with the market.

After suffering a financial flop with their Intellivision (“intelligent television”) home console in 1979, Mattel wasn’t eager to jump back into the video game fray. AGE was hoping to change that.

Novak: At the time, video games were a dirty word at Mattel. The Intellivision had almost put them out of business. People lost their pensions over it. The last thing they wanted to hear about was a video game.

Chris Gentile: They thought they were going to be the next big video game company. Then the whole industry crashed.

Hall: What buoyed them was not being an actual video game manufacturer. The logic was: Nintendo was a rising business, so let’s be an accessory. Let’s grow with them.

Novak: I remember Jaron coming in with some VR goggles. Mattel was thinking about it, but then the concern became that a kid would be wearing them and fall down a flight of stairs.

Lanier: I approached Mattel and I was more or less told that I didn’t know anything about the industry and to come back with someone who did.

Novak: Mattel had a constant stream of inventors coming in looking to sell prototypes. When Gentile came in with the Power Glove prototype, I was the only one to say it was a bad idea.

Hall: They basically came over with the $250,000 Data Glove system hooked up to a Commodore.

Chris Gentile: I had the Data Glove wired into a computer system that fed into the NES so the console thought it was a joystick.

Lanier: We had come in prior to that with some pretty impressive demos, like a racquetball-type game. This demo was to close the deal, to convince them to make it and ship it.

Novak: Chris was there with an old black-and-white Mac. He had this golf glove with wires coming out of it. The Mac was the interface between the glove and the NES. He was demonstrating it with Rad Racer, like having a virtual steering wheel, and Punch-Out.

Hall: It was the older version, with a sort of ghosted version of the player on screen.

Chris Gentile: We had other games, racing games, but Punch-Out was the focus. It had the biggest feel for the Glove. It’s almost first-person, because you’re over the shoulder of the guy.

Nintendo

Novak: What sold it, and it was the weirdest thing, was when he suggested [Mattel CEO] Jill Barad try it. She put on the glove, he fired up Punch-Out, and she knocked the guy out on her first hit.

Chris Gentile: She hardly ever played games. She knocked Glass Joe out.

Lanier: I thought Jill was very cool. She was one of the few female toy executives at the time.

Novak: I thought Gentile rigged the game to do that.

Chris Gentile: The game was not rigged at all.

Novak: Jill took off the glove and said, “I want to do this.”

Hall: Everyone was skeptical, but she was extremely enthused. She essentially asked what it would take to have something ready for the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1989. This was October 1988.

John Gentile: We wanted to do a whole 3D system, but Mattel was more comfortable getting Nintendo on board with the Glove with dedicated games.

Chris Gentile: When she wanted it, it became about taking a $10,000 device and turning it into $26 worth of materials. 

Hall: They offered big development dollars, so the answer was yes. The answer should have been no.

In late 1988, work began on an attempt to convert VPL’s Data Glove into something that could line toy shelves at a retail price point.

Hall: AGE had come to Mattel and said, “Oh, yeah, we can sell this for $90.” But they didn’t actually have a plan to do it.

Zimmerman: It was the difference between a Volkswagen and a Rolls-Royce. One is a high-quality lab instrument.

Hall: With an $80 product, it’s a five-times multiplier of what it actually cost. So you’re really talking about $16 worth of materials for a set-up that might have cost $50,000.

Novak: When I started getting into it, I got research from Nintendo. A typical play session would last anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes. With the Glove, your arm would get tired after 15 or 20 minutes. So that was problem one.

Hall: We didn’t actually have original games to demo it with. It was more about finding a bend sensor that worked. There were levels of gesture recognition. We’d use boxing games, Mario, stuff like that to replicate the A, B, and arrow buttons.

Lanier: We basically licensed them the patent. We were not responsible for engineering the consumer version.

Novak: Gentile was around a lot. There was some resentment. Here was an outside guy yelling at Mattel guys. He stood to make the money, where we were just working on salary.

Hall: I would say that Mattel had to worry about reliability and the customer experience, where Chris could just make grand pronouncements on how things should be done. He wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences in terms of production.

Chris Gentile: They basically kept us hidden the entire time. They didn’t want the whole company getting involved with video games again. It was Jill’s project.

Hall: It may have seemed that way to him. What happened was that the Glove was part of the new business development group, which was a little bit isolated for political reasons. From Mattel’s perspective, it was like, 'Hey, we’re gonna leave you alone.'

Novak: He was a nice enough guy. I’ve got nothing against him. It just felt like we were his development lab.

Hall: AGE turned in a prototype in mid-December 1988 that didn’t work for squat. The Data Glove used fiber optics, and the challenge was to come up with something to replicate that. The first one was carbon-impregnated silicone rubber. That worked, but it was slow.

John Gentile: Those optics were never going to hold up to kids jumping on the Glove.

Zimmerman: What they did that was great was come up with something silk-screened, which was far superior.

Hall: What we wound up with were flexible ink on Mylar sheets. We paid about five cents each for them.

Lanier: Conductive ink is a really inexpensive way to make a bend sensor.

John Gentile: The ink was able to measure changes in resistance. It was Chris’s idea, and it was excellent.

Chris Gentile: The conductive ink was much, much cheaper than the optics in the Data Glove. It took about nine months, which was pretty quick.

The conductive ink sensor running through the Glove's fingers. Plusea via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As a Nintendo licensee, Mattel needed the blessing of one of the most notoriously difficult companies in the entertainment business. If they weren’t comfortable with the Power Glove, Nintendo would potentially hold back on their official Seal of Approval.  

Novak: Jill would go to Washington once a month or so. They knew they couldn’t do anything without a license. Mattel hated Nintendo.

Caesar Filori (Former Hardware Support, Nintendo of America): Licensed products weren’t things we really supported. Tengen, for example, made games that worked on the NES, but we didn’t back them.

Hall: They butted heads. The Power Glove wasn’t the only 3D peripheral in development. Brøderbund had the U-Force, an infrared device with perpendicular panels that could measure hand waving.

John Gentile: We were aware of U-Force. They were doing some things that overlapped, doing certain things the way we were doing them. But theirs was less about finger tracking and more about the hand.

Lanier: Nintendo kept us at arm’s length. We wanted their friendly cooperation, but there wasn’t a lot for them to do.

Chris Gentile: AGE didn’t have a lot to do with Nintendo of America, but they licensed the Glove for Japan. I do remember they wanted a second instructional manual to make set-up more clear.

John Gentile: What Nintendo was concerned about was making sure the product could hold up through millions of finger bends. Once it ran up to 10 million, we got their Seal of Approval.

Hall: Nintendo being Nintendo, they worked hard to play people off one another. Mattel would want to add functionality and Nintendo would resist it. These are pretty large and arrogant companies. Everyone wants to be in control.

While Mattel’s engineers tried to shrink the price of components down, other team members were focused on its aesthetic appeal. Mattel hired Image Design’s Hal Berger and Gary Yamron to help finalize the look.    

Novak: We had to think of the size of the Glove. We went through like 300 or 400 different hand sizes trying to find something universal.

Hall: We never made a left-handed version. The decision was, only 10 percent of the population is left-handed, so that was it. The retailers didn’t want to bother stocking both.

Novak: The look really came from Bob Reyo. He was the senior vice president of marketing for boys’ toys. One early prototype was really cool, almost spider-looking, but fragile.

John Gentile: We had to worry about sweat, wicking, stuff like that.

Novak: Bob kind of held it up with two fingers and looked like he was smelling a turd. He tossed it in the middle of the table and said, “I can’t sell this for $80,” and left.

John Gentile: We were after a RoboCop kind of feel—this big rubber gauntlet wrapped around your forearm.

Novak: That’s when I learned about perceived value. This Glove, cool as it is, doesn’t look like it’s worth $80, so they throw 15 to 20 sculptors on it.

Although Nintendo had released over 100 games for the NES through 1988, none were designed with a gesture-control device in mind. It would be up to Mattel to develop titles that were proprietary to the Glove.

Novak: I was the software guy, so I was the one developing original game titles for use with the Power Glove. One was Super Glove Ball, where you controlled a hand in this 3D space. The other was some piece of crap title they licensed called Bad Street Brawler.

08cents413 via eBay

Zimmerman: We didn’t develop games [at VPL] for it. As it turns out, no one really did.

Novak: Bad Street was just a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up. They wanted to launch a game with it so I tried to make it work with the Glove. They paid $30,000 or $40,000 for the rights. It makes me sick to even say the name.

Chris Gentile: We were trying to tell Mattel that we need games. They kept saying, “Let’s wait and see how the hardware does first.”

Novak: What we showed at CES was basically an Amiga with a game playing and a kid actor pretending to play it. That’s really what sold it to retailers.

Hall: It was all the visual look, but not the tech. We were still working on the sensors.

Chris Gentile: Mattel wouldn’t even put their name up on the booths.

John Gentile: We were in a back room. It was very low-key because Mattel had no idea the reaction they would be getting. 

Hall: I remember spending 72 hours at a time getting it ready for those shows. I burnt myself with a soldering iron.   

Novak: This poor guy, Darren, was the guy at Mattel who had to make the templates for all the games. Say you wanted to play Double Dragon: He was the guy who put the cartridge in and figured out the code to put in the keypad on the Glove.

Zimmerman: Making it backwards-compatible sort of did the Glove a disservice. It’s like taking a fine jeweler’s watch and using it as a hammer.

Chris Gentile: They were looking for developers, but it’s a chicken-or-egg thing. No developer wants to produce games until they know a lot of the devices are out there.

Hall: It got shown to us in October with none of the final tech. By February, we had the bend sensors working. It was a pretty fast turnaround.

Chris Gentile: That first CES, we took 700,000 orders.

John Gentile: Toys "R" Us ordered 100,000. Kmart ordered 100,000.

Novak: I was the only one who had doubts. I had no idea how right I was.

III: A LOSS OF CONTROL

Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

Bolstered by the continued popularity of the NES, Mattel’s Power Glove became one of the hottest gift items of the 1989 holiday season. The device was also front and center in The Wizard, a Nintendo-approved film starring Fred Savage about a video game savant that was released just 10 days before Christmas, on December 15, 1989.

Hall: They did very well going into the season, getting a million orders.

Zimmerman: They sold the sizzle.

John Gentile: We saw Universal was doing The Wizard, a coming-of-age story. They used controllers throughout, then the Power Glove at the climax. We designed the poster, too.

Novak: I got a screen credit on the movie as "Power Glove Advisor."

Filori: I remember all the game counselors were absolutely riveted to see how they’d depict the call [tip line] center. They definitely made it look more glamorous than it was. We didn’t even have computers. All of our notes were in books.

Novak: The kids were playing Rad Racer with it. “Oh, it’s so bad.” I remember that.

Hall: The best part of The Wizard is Fred Savage wearing a left-handed glove on the poster.

Universal

When the Gloves were finally taken out from under Christmas trees and unwrapped, the hype didn’t quite match reality. Kids found it cumbersome, hard to calibrate, and even harder to make work with existing NES games.

Novak: I sensed there would be an inherent latency in the response. A regular controller is digital—press a button, bing, something happens.

Filori: It didn’t work well with a lot of the games—fast-twitch games. It wasn’t precise enough.

Hall: It’s about absorbing the experience of game play, and if the controller gets in the way, it’s not going to work. Pushing buttons is subconscious.

Lanier: When I helped them demo it, I didn’t think the interaction was very good.

Hall: Waving your hand in space, you don’t have a visual reference for where the center is. You end up making huge gestures to go there.

Novak: Look at Mario. You need perfect slides, jumps, bounces. You bend a finger on the Glove and it’s like it says, “Oh, did he bend a finger?” The software may not recognize it.

Filori: The problem is you just can’t map something like that to any game and have it be fun. That was the problem. There was no game experience that became better for having used the Glove.

Chris Gentile: I don’t believe there was a problem with lag time. The problem was with how people would calibrate it. The ones I saw set up properly, it was real-time functional. I didn’t see any delays.

Hall: There were issues with how the ultrasonic sensors would work. We used two and ideally needed three, but it would’ve made the Glove big and ugly.

Novak: The ultrasonic triangulation actually worked, but it was a bitch to calibrate. No kid was going to do that.

Hall: We originally had the transmitters on the TV and the receivers on the Glove in case people wanted to play with two Gloves at once. But the receivers had a very broad, wide angle, so we swapped them. That was a last-minute thing.

Novak: To set it up, you had to hold your hand out and make a fist. If you didn’t, the operating system didn’t know what was a fist and what was your hand. It needed to be pointing at the sensors, and no one was doing it.

Hall: Ultimately, the experience was your arm getting tired, you have no idea where the center is, there’s no 3D. So you shove it into a closet.

Lanier: You hold something continually, and you’re going to generate arm fatigue no matter what. Holding your hand out is not great. You want to be in motion. That’s why the early demos had racquetball.

Zimmerman: They had this concept of holding the Glove up in space, but then your arm drops and you lose that center and engage the Down button. The solution would have been to make that box move so it readjusts as your arm does. It’s just a tiny user interface tweak.

Novak: I once set up a demo for a BBC reporter. The woman was playing Super Glove Ball as she was talking and it worked perfectly.

Chris Gentile: Sometimes kids would enter the wrong code for the game, and you’d get responses that didn’t make sense.

Lanier: At the last minute, there was a design decision about the plastic tracker above the knuckle, so when you closed your hand it was uncomfortable. People were just not thinking about how the Glove would be used.

Further demoralizing players was the lack of games designed exclusively for the Glove—there weren’t any released in time for the 1989 holiday season.

Novak: Super Glove Ball didn’t come out until a year later.

Hall: Really, it was launched too early.

Novak: The push was to get the hardware out. We didn’t even start development of Super Glove Ball until four or five months in. All the marketing and advertising was based around the Glove.

John Gentile: Mattel said, “Why spend the money? They [players] will just use NES games.” But the value of the Glove was with specific games, like Nolan Ryan Baseball. You would’ve been able to throw the ball at the batter and focus on spin and rotation, stuff like that. It would’ve been fantastic.

Hall: I was one of the people lobbying for them to wait a year and have some 3D games, not hackery with existing games.

Filori: I think maybe Mattel thought people would make games automatically for it. But where was the incentive to do that?

Lanier: I would say there was a big problem with the software quality, but that wasn’t my job to adjudicate.

Novak: To a rational person, you’d want software to go along with the hardware. Mattel didn’t see it that way.

Hall: The Glove was just not good in compatibility mode with older games. It was all big moves and getting exhausted trying to figure out the controller.

Novak: At that time, Nintendo controlled the game cartridges because they sold the lockout chip. So Mattel goes to them and says, “We want to order 300,000 cartridges for Super Glove Ball. We want to blanket the holiday with them.” And Nintendo says, “We’ll give you 20,000.”

megahit79 via eBay

Novak: That was their key to success. They knew what happened with Atari. They wanted to keep crappy software from flooding the market. 

Zimmerman: It’s too bad they didn’t make a killer game for it. I guess once Mattel sold the hardware, they were done.

Novak: It drove me crazy. The Glove was just limping to its grave.

Although it experienced brisk sales for the 1989 holiday season, word of mouth eventually cast a long shadow over the long-term prospects for the Power Glove. Mattel’s plans for a Turbo Glove, a lighter version with the keypad worn on a belt, were abandoned.

Novak: We had two other games we were going to do with Rare, but they got canceled.

Zimmerman: I think it did the world of VR a huge disservice. It made a huge platform of visibility, but the play was not satisfying. That’s what killed Atari.

Lanier: It was a big hit early on, but just kind of petered out.

Chris Gentile: By the time Super Glove Ball came out, it was like 14 months later and interest had just disappeared.

Novak: In the real world, it would’ve been a huge hit financially. But at Mattel, bonuses are tied in with sales projections. And they just over-projected. They went from thinking they’d sell $60 million to $80 million. It got up to $120 million. So when they only sold $80 million, it was a disappointment.

Chris Gentile: I'd love to have a so-called failure like that every year. It was a little bit of the future that was hard to grasp for some people. Today, people have mobile devices. Back then, it was a challenge.

Lanier: I remember a lot of Gloves got held up in Japan by authorities in a warehouse.

Chris Gentile: We sold a total of 1.3 million Gloves, including in Japan.

John Gentile: The Glove did very well in Japan, selling 600,000 units. At the time, there were only three or four million NES systems installed, so to do 20 percent of the installed base was great.

Zimmerman: A lot more could’ve been done with it. Virtual orchestras, virtual pottery—there were more artistic applications.

Chris Gentile: We wanted to release games, but it was pulled off the market after a year.

John Gentile: By the time the next Toy Fair rolled around, we could sense it starting to die down. We had a good year run.

IV: THE POWER OF GLOVE

Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

Although it lasted less than 12 months on store shelves, the promise of the Power Glove—a seamless interaction with three-dimensional software—later came to fruition with video game systems like Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect, as well as the surge of VR platforms led by the Oculus Rift. 

Novak: I had a little laugh when they came up with the Wii.

Lanier: The Microsoft Kinect was sort of a spiritual successor to the Power Glove.

Hall: It was a pivotal product that was unfortunately-timed, but it changed people’s mindset.

Zimmerman: It was a tangible manifestation of VR that was mass-marketed. It was almost cyber-punk.

John Gentile: The work we do now, people with Oculus, Samsung, the Glove always comes up. It’s an instant ice-breaker. Everybody had one.

Lanier: I later helped Spielberg brainstorm on Minority Report, and the Data Glove sort of made an appearance in that—this idea of using gestures in this dystopian world. We made a working model so the screenwriters could feel what it was like.

Decades after the Glove's release, several users have found aftermarket uses for the device, which has been repeatedly “hacked” to provide a user interface for many do-it-yourself projects.

Hall: MIT had a few dozen projects based on hacked Power Gloves. This kid at the last Maker Faire, he had a hacked Glove and operated a simulation helicopter in 3D space.

John Gentile: I’ve seen people use to control stop-motion animation. DJs use it.

Zimmerman: The patent has expired, but I’m just happy to be able to say I was involved in the first wave of all that.

Nearly 28 years after its introduction, the Power Glove remains one of the most iconic pieces of video game hardware ever developed. A Kickstarter-backed documentary, The Power of Glove, is slated for release this year.

Hall: It was one of the first things to bring the potential for a truly immersive world. Tron had come out, but this was the first time you could put something on and feel like you could be part of the game. And it looked cool.

Chris Gentile: Even for people who didn’t feel it worked, it was an eye-opener into the whole virtual world. It was the first time someone could feel like they were inside the game as opposed to outside of it.

Filori: It’s a retro piece of tech that has a lot of personality to it.

Lanier: What’s interesting is that it being heavy and the overall design of it is probably why it’s remembered after all these years. It just looks cool.

Novak: Some YouTube comments, people want me dead. They think I invented it.

Chris Gentile: It’s interesting people think of it as a failure, because people still use it and still talk about it.

Lanier: I think people get nostalgia for stuff like this because of malaise, because the current moment sucks.

Zimmerman: The first time I saw it, I was passing a Toys "R" Us in New York and saw it in the window. I must say, I had this amazing sensation that I thought of something and had it manifested in the physical world. The irony is, even having worked at Atari, I don’t play video games.

Lanier: Honestly, if people had seen the early demos made for the Glove, they would’ve understood what made it so interesting to everyone.

Novak: If it was set up correctly, the damn thing worked.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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