1989! The future was going to be now. Behold the Power Glove. We were going to don the techno-gauntlet of the future and dip our hands into cyberspace. The Power Glove was going to be our Infinity Gauntlet! We would become Thanos, Destroyer of Cyber Worlds.
The documentary The Power of Glove puts us right in the middle of the hectic release, the lows of its failure, the resurgence, and the high-minded ideals that built the thing in the first place.
Wearing that glove made you feel like a titan. Strapping it on would produce visions of Arnold Schwarzenegger gearing up for righteous war in the jungle. Wearing it was all Eye of The Tiger. You were the hero of the story.
Until you tried to do anything other than playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.
Insert a sad trombone sound effect here. Or, maybe a whoopee cushion.
It didn’t work! Oof. Very famously. The Power Glove wasn’t forged in the dying heart of a neutron star. The emotional highs, and eventual lows, of that product’s release are hard to relate to folks who weren’t there to experience it.
Despite it all, somehow that useless hunk of, like, really cool looking vinyl and Velcro resonated with the cultural zeitgeist in a way that’s difficult to explain. Somehow, that gauntlet seared itself into our memories. And the fascinations of our children.
The Power Glove was, and is, more than just a toy that didn’t work.
I know. You’re saying, “How the hell did that happen?”
Before the Chattanooga Film Festival, I wouldn’t say I’d applied any serious introspection to my feelings on the Power Glove. I’d mostly just accepted the thing didn’t work. But, my gosh. What could have been!
Here’s the thing, though. The Power of Glove documentary breaks it all down.
In our chat, Andrew Austin — one of the filmmakers — shares that their original intent was primarily to explore the maker art culture. Which is really cool. For example, people are repurposing the Power Glove to give DJs a way to mix music with their hands on the fly.
However, what they discovered about the history of the technology was something so much deeper.
To rip off Dave Eggers, the story of the Power Glove’s trip to the market is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
The product’s failures, like being a Mattel product and not coordinating with Nintendo for release until basically the week before, aren’t really what make the Power Glove heartbreaking.
As the filmmakers explore that story, they find their way to the creators of the technology which allowed the Power Glove to function.
We really tried to make it a story that was more universal in the sense that someone who doesn’t have an inherent interest in video games or didn’t grow up in that time would actually enjoy it. I think that has to do with the passion of the creators behind it. That they really had this vision. And it ties in with the 80s because it was an era of technological optimism. – Andrew Austin
The Power Glove was built on the dreams of what could be. There were high-minded ideals of bringing a technology to the people in the hopes of leveling access to cyberspace. Why should such a thing be only for well-endowed research organizations?
They wanted to change the world. And they might have anyways. See our on-going fascination with virtual reality and the success of Ready Player One.
Andrew Austin shared some time with us before our screening of his film at the Chattanooga Film Festival. Check out our conversation with him.
And, you know, start making some social media noise. #DemandThePowerOfTheGlove! This documentary belongs out in the world.
It went from ‘Power to the People!’ to ‘Power Glove to the People!’ – Linda Jacobson, author of “Garage Virtual Reality”
A Conversation with Andrew Austin, one of the directors of The Power of Glove
Brad: So, how long have you been working on the film?
Andrew: We worked on it from the time we were like, “Let’s shoot an interview.” So, five years.
Brad: Okay, five years!
Andrew: And we’ve been showing it at festivals since October 2017.
Brad: That’s a lot of love for the Power of Glove. Where did that come from?
Andrew: The genesis of this project was looking at the Power Glove and thinking about toys that had come out in our childhood. It’s as if, back in the day, there would just be these awesome commercials and that would be your first introduction to Mario Kart or the Power Glove. It felt like lightning struck. All of a sudden this thing appeared.
We thought, “You know, these things don’t just appear. There are actual people who put their blood and sweat into making sure that these products actually function.” Or, at least they try to.
And we thought, “We’ve never heard these stories.” These people have never had a voice to just be able to say what got them interested in engineering or constructing firmware or hardware for the Power Glove. So we thought, “Let’s actually try to find these people and let them talk. You know, see what comes out.”
The Power Glove has such a reputation for being this gimmick that’s just worthless. And stupid. And that tried to rip off kids. I think the Angry Video Game Nerd did a lot to poison the well. “The Power Glove sucks. You should hate it. You should disrespect it.”
When we started seeing the actual passion that the creators had when they were making this thing – and how it was actually a disappointment for them that it didn’t live up to the hype that the marketing created or that they had in their minds – it became a cause, almost, to right the wrongs of peoples’ interpretations or receptions of what the Power Glove was.
Brad: I remember when it came out. I didn’t have one, but my friend did. So we had to go to his house to play it. But, I always found it to be incredibly compelling. And I remember when I heard people didn’t like it. Yes, I remember putting it on and going, “Okay, it doesn’t do exactly what that commercial says.” But, I’ve always loved the Power Glove. Back then. And I’ve always disliked people who crap on it today, like the Angry Video Game Nerd. It really bothers me.
Andrew: Uh, same way.
Brad: It was so precious to me! So, did you have one as a kid?
Andrew: I didn’t. I knew about it because of friends who had older siblings. And I knew that it was supposed to be awesome and that people weren’t able to really play it to the level that it promised. But, no, I didn’t have one growing up.
It gave me that outside perspective when we actually started going out and talking to people about how much it really meant. I was three when the Power Glove came out, so I wasn’t at the prime age. But, I like to think that it at least gave me an outside perspective, where I wasn’t so emotionally attached to it as some other people were when it came out and they were seven.
Brad: I’d be crying on set.
William: Wait, what year did the Power Glove come out?
William: Yeah, I was seven.
Brad: Ten. Perfect age.
Andrew: It just seemed like, “okay, this is going to be a fun, little short documentary.” That’s what we thought at the beginning, as a lot of these documentaries end up being. But when I started, we could go to game shops. That’s what we would do. Just go to any random game shop in a small town and bring a Power Glove. And people would leap out of their chairs and say, “Oh my God!” When I realized how much emotional attachment people had to this, that’s when I realized, “Oh. I think this could actually sustain a longer story.”
Brad: It’s an interesting time for it to come out, too, in the wake of the recent release of Ready Player One. Just the amount of 80s nostalgia. I mean, even at this festival, there’s a bunch of movies that are 80s focused.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely.
Brad: So. You’re bringing this documentary out, you’ve put a bunch of work in. What does the film really mean to you, now that you’re bringing it to Chattanooga and beyond? Where does it settle for you in terms of nostalgia versus fresh narrative?
Andrew: I think what we tried really hard to do with this documentary is not to just pander to the nostalgia craze.
Brad: Yeah, it’s dangerous.
Andrew: It really is. And I know that there are a lot of people out there who love 80s nostalgia so much that they’d see this movie even if it was a piece of shit, you know?
Brad: You’re looking at him.
Andrew: We showed it to some nerds and they’re like, “It could’ve been three hours longer! I loved it.” But, we really tried to make it a story that was universal in the sense that someone who doesn’t have an inherent interest in video games or didn’t grow up in that time would actually enjoy it. I think that has to do with the passion of the creators behind it. That they really had this vision. And it ties in with the 80s because it was an era of technological optimism.
I mean, what I like to think of is, nowadays, people have cell phones in their pockets. They’re very powerful computers but all you hear people talk about is how they wish they didn’t have it. They’re just like “I’m on my phone all day, I hate it.” You have Google Maps and all this stuff and they just say, “I wish I was off Facebook. I wish I could get off that.” All they talk about it how they wish they didn’t have it, in a way.
Whereas, this was this era where people were actively trying to integrate themselves with technology in a very visible and fun way. And I think the creators of the Power Glove and the DataGlove, which preceded it, truly believed in a vision of technology enhancing the future and enhancing our lives.
Brad: And, without spoiling the content of your film, you keep talking about the passions of the creators. What did you discover in the making of the movie?
Andrew: Well, the Power Glove, essentially was a dumbed down version of this product called the DataGlove which was made by a company called VPL. Jaron Lanier was the founder of that company. He’s actually the man credited with coining the term virtual reality. They were like, “What are we gonna call this thing? Virtual reality.”
So, if you keep going back on the chronology of the Power Glove, you get to some high-level visionaries of virtual reality. Really, the history of virtual reality. And that’s what became fascinating about it. We were talking about people at the forefront of virtual reality, which of course has this huge resurgence now.
So, VPL made this very expensive DataGlove that cost $10,000. The only people who had enough money to buy it and use it were research institutions or universities. NASA used it a lot. And they thought, “Okay, this is good but we want to bring this to the public. We want this to be something that every person can use. Not just these rich, big institutions.”
At the same time, video games were starting to have a resurgence with the Nintendo. They thought this is a way to sort of democratize the technology. Maybe not bring true virtual reality, but at least sort of break the barrier between the physical world and the virtual world through a commercial device. And so it became, “Let’s make a toy out of it. Unleash it on the young generation and kids will grow up with this. It’ll be second nature by the time they’ve grown up.”
The goal was to bring this new way of thinking about computers and integrating it with our lives for a positive good to children through a toy. And I think that was something I didn’t really think of when we started the project. It just seemed like, “Okay, a toy’s a toy. You’re trying to make money.” But there was actually a visionary goal behind it all.
Brad: Were you aware of that visionary goal before making the documentary?
Andrew: No, I wasn’t.
Brad: So what’s the start of this documentary? How do you reach out to these creators?
Andrew: At the time we started making this film, there was really barely anything online about the history of the Power Glove. Now, in the last five, six years, people have kind of dug in a little deeper. And, I like to think they were partially influenced by the fact that they knew this documentary was being made.
But, the first guy we reached out to was a guy named Novak. We had found a New York Times article that mistakenly credited him as the inventor of the Power Glove. And we just found his contact information and wrote and said, “Hey, we’re interested in starting this documentary about the Power Glove. You’re the inventor. Would you like to be interviewed?”
And he wrote back and said, “There’s a New York Times article that mistakenly credits me as the inventor of the Power Glove. So let me first and foremost say I didn’t invent it. If you want to talk to people who are more on that side, you should reach out to these people. All I did was create game software for it.”
So, we interviewed him and he said you need to talk to these people. Of course, that branched out into this big family tree where you talk to that person and they say, “You need to talk to this person.”
It all led back to a guy named Tom Zimmerman, who was the first guy who made the prototype for the DataGlove. He brought that to VPL and they made a company that revolved at least partially around the DataGlove. And this thing called the “EyePhone.” Which is E-Y-E-phone. ‘Cause that’s what they called the headset. So you have a DataGlove and an EyePhone.
I remember I didn’t know that. So, I was interviewing this guy and he kept saying, “Well, when we invented the Eyephone…” and I was like, “Wait a minute…”
Brad: Ah! This documentary just got so much bigger!
Andrew: Haha, yeah. I keep talking about the creators, but our original intent was to get into the community of people out there who re-purpose it. They’ll gut the Power Glove, put new technology inside of it so that they can make musical instruments out of it.
William: Oh cool.
Andrew: Yeah, art projects! Obviously, it’s a cultural icon, so people will incorporate it into videos or music videos and stuff. I think that’s a really fun thing we explore in the documentary. And that was going to be the focus of it.
Once we really started talking to the creators, we realized they had a vision. You know, that it wasn’t just a shitty toy that they were trying to make money off of. That story became our focus.
William: I remember how big VR was in the 80s and 90s. It popped everywhere. But, it did feel like it all came from this idea of democratizing access to each other and community. It’s funny how these really big ideas line up with our experience of something.
The Power Glove was the first time that we played Nintendo as a family. It’s a major childhood memory for me, but also an example of linking generations together. And 25 years later or whatever when the Wii comes out and they’ve got the Mike Tyson’s Punch Out again and there’s that connection again.
I guess I don’t really have a question about that. It’s just kind of my experience with visionary things that, that’s how it plays out in reality.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, that’s a great point because even just the concept of having to press buttons, was, I guess, for a lot of adults at that time, it’s just too foreign to them.
Brad: My dad hated it so much.
Andrew: Like, “What am I supposed to be doing here?” But you say, “Put on this glove and you can punch somebody.” And it’s the same thing with the Wii. It was the first time adults said, “Oh wait, all I have to do is this to hit a baseball? That sounds great. I can do that.”
Brad: Add actual exercise to video games? What?
You know, I just remembered The Wizard, right? The Fred Savage movie. And the gloves featured on that one cool kid, right?
Andrew: Lucas Barton.
Brad: Yeah, yeah. Does that come up?
Andrew: Absolutely. We interviewed the director of The Wizard.
Brad: Oh my God!
Andrew: He was a really nice guy. His name is Todd Holland. But he talked about how it was a different era in product placement back then. And nowadays, it’s really, really strategic. There are whole divisions of companies devoted to what products we’re going to place in this film. But he was saying, back then you kind of just made deals, sometimes under the table, that were just like, “Oh, Nintendo is featuring this Super Mario Bros. 3 in this film, let’s see if we can feature the Power Glove.” And they just write it in.
He was saying that the interesting thing is that he was not a gamer at all. That he didn’t even know what a Game Boy was and that was one of the ways he pitched himself as a good director for this project. He was like, “I’m not gonna make this an insider movie where you have to understand video games to even appreciate it. I’m just gonna make a kid’s action movie that features video games.”
I think some of that comes across when none of the stuff they show works like that at all. They’re like, “Go for the star!” And you’re like, “There’s no star there. What are you talking about?”
Brad: You just guaranteed me a rent of that movie. This conversation is taking me back!
Andrew: He was a great guy. I’m glad you asked that because someone in another interview asked me how important was it to get The Wizard in there? In a way, I mean, it’s on the periphery of the driving narrative.
Brad: But it’s representative of how iconic that glove was, right?
Brad: You would need that in your Nintendo movie.
Andrew: You couldn’t make a documentary about the Power Glove without talking about The Wizard, because for a lot of people when you say Power Glove, they think “Wizard.”
Andrew: Love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.
Brad: Alright, well thanks so much for chatting with us. I’m super excited. We haven’t been able to see your movie yet, but that’s priority one now.
Andrew: I know y’all are probably busy. It’s playing at 3:15 today.
Brad: Oh, we’re going.
William: Yeah we are!
Y’all, we did see it. It’s good!