The Power Glove

28 minutes 2015

This documentary, written and directed by Norman Caruso, tells the story of the Power Glove, the first ever mass-produced gesture-based device. It was released in 1989 by Mattel and it was the first step towards artificial reality. This model was bulky and resembled the ones worn by astronaut, but it featured all the controls needed to operate a Nintendo game from a distance of several feet. The Power Glove eliminated the majority of cumbersome cables and the joysticks. Basically it extended two-dimensional games into the third dimension. However, less than a year later, it was discontinued.

In 1981, a young MIT graduate named Zimmerman sat in his bedroom daydreaming. He’d just completed a degree in Humanities and Engineering, but was having trouble finding a job. While pursuing his passion for electronic music, he came up with an idea to create a glove that could measure finger bending.

He enrolled in a class to find out more and met a woman there whose husband was co-founder of Atari Computers. Zimmerman learned that Atari had just opened a new department that would focus entirely on the future of digital entertainment including electronic music. Zimmerman went to work at the Atari Research Lab in Sunnyvale, California.

While there, Zimmerman showed off his patented invention, which he called the Optical Flex Sensor. Atari was interested and offered him $10,000 for the rights. Zimmerman rejected the offer. In 1983 Atari was forced to get rid of the research lab and lay off many employees. Zimmerman shelved his Flex Sensor and started working on voice synthesizers with a friend.

One night at an electronic music concert he met a musical genius called Jaron Lanier. This young man had worked engineering sounds for video games. This led him to eventually create his own game, which he called ‘Moon Dust’.  At the time, Lanier was creating a visual programming language but was having hardware difficulties because screens were not big enough. When Zimmerman told him about his glove, Lanier thought it would be the perfect solution to his problem because rather than use a screen people could move objects with the glove in a virtual reality system.

Together they formed a new company called VPL Research, Inc. – the very first company to focus on virtual reality. Eventually the glove was perfected and called the Data Glove and prospective clients started lining up, interested in using it as an interphase device. One of their very first clients was NASA, which planned to use the glove for simulations. Also, medical research companies purchased the glove to simulate surgeries and study hand tremors.

In 1987 an entertainment company came to VPL. They were interested in using the glove in the recently revitalized video game industry. Find out what happened next.

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