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The Power Glove documentary is a feel-good movie about a flop

It still has fans, and they get their due, too

the power of glove documentary by andrew austin and adam ward
Tracy Hall, a developer of The Power Glove
The Power of Glove (official site)
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

I was not expecting a documentary about the Power Glove to have an emotional climax but in a way, it does. About midway through the look at the strange and decidedly late-1980s video game peripheral there’s a montage of all the ways it remains in use today — in things like electronic music composition, hacks and mods and interactive art pieces.

This sequence in The Power of Glove, directed by Andrew Austin and Adam Ward, underlines the documentary’s perfect tone. It doesn’t trivialize the device or cast side-eyes at those who made it, enjoyed it or still do. I’d somewhat expected that approach — not knowing Austin and Ward’s work at all — when the movie was announced in a 2013 Kickstarter that raised $18,000.

But nor do Austin and Ward portray the glove as somehow misunderstood, ahead of its time, or even more than nominally functional. The Power Glove was simply not properly supported, and it was put into production without much of a plan, as those behind it attest.

”There was this pervasive theme, in stuff on the Internet, that these people were trying to take advantage of children, trying to trick them into buying this gimmick,” Austin said after a screening in Winston-Salem, North Carolina two weeks ago. “When we started talk to these people, we found they weren’t trying to do that; They were trying to do their job. They were engineers and they got excited about this. They were really trying to make a functional product that maybe would introduce people to virtual reality, and maybe capture their hearts in a way.

”Just trying to do them justice was a [goal],” he said.

Ward and Austin are in their early 30s and they believe that missing the Power Glove and a lot of the early enthusiasm for Nintendo gave them a detachment necessary to present a fair story. For those who remember using the Power Glove (I had a friend with one) no, you were not playing with it wrong. It simply was that bad and unsuited for playing the video games of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

In the film, its creators from Mattel acknowledge that the sensor — it’s sonar-based, believe it or not — was three times slower than a standard controller. The Power Glove was supposed to have dedicated games but the marketing hype and the need to capitalize on the enormous success of the NES with a big hit had developers instead writing gesture translations for hundreds of existing games, practically knowing this could not work as believed.

Yet no one is vilified, parodied or hung by their own words. The anecdotes support the idea of people earnestly doing the best they can with what they were given.

”When we looked at what other things been done on the Power Glove,” mostly on the Internet, Ward said, “we noticed a running theme of hyperbole, not really examining it thoroughly, and just sort of saying ‘it sucks,’ which is fine. There are definitely some extremely entertaining YouTube videos on it.

”But what we wanted to do was something about the people, and we wanted it to try to remain unbiased and to do that we couldn’t go to much into hyperbole,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we were letting them tell their story.”

Early in the film there is a tale of Mattel’s chief executive at the time, Jill Barad, scoring a fluke knock-out in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! and memorably telling everyone in the demonstration, “We’re making the thing,” (using a profane adjective).

But Barad (who does not appear in the movie, she’s only referred to) doesn’t come off as clueless or insincere about the Power Glove. There was real excitement for the device, which began as a $10,000 piece of wearable computing called the Dataglove, conceived by VR pioneers VPL Research.

Those origins are explained with just enough detail as to not get bogged down in technicalities. There aren’t just engineers featured in the film, either. Collectors, artists and the enthusiast culture is given a very fair shake. Nintendo superfan Isaiah Triforce Johnson gets the right amount of screen time, going through his day in New York City wearing his glove like a badge of honor.

Sure, the groan-inducing line from the Fred Savage vehicle The Wizard makes its requisite appearance. But the film does so the way it does everything else, by projecting a spirit of affirmation for video games and those who love them. I love The Power of Glove. It’s so good.

(The Power of Glove is screening in Raleigh, North Carolina at the Longleaf Film Festival on May 12, and then the Glass City Film Festival at Toledo, Ohio on May 19.)