Artificial Virtualities

by scholastress

close up- child's play

“Everything else is child’s play,”decried the Power Glove, setting up a dichotomy of empowered, futuristic users and infantile, backwards on-lookers. This temporal split, dividing its imagined public by age as well as chronology, evoked a gated community of ever-cool, powerful young adults. To wear the Power Glove, after all, was to “put on the power of the future.”[1] This future, as all imagined futures, was heavily linked to specific notions of technologically-enabled heterochronologies and power that were shared with the VR industry at large.

The ad’s rhetoric, with its frequent repetition of power, futurity and the immediacy of action, is one of many examples of the discourse of empowerment and control surrounding Virtual Reality technologies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The carte blanche promised by the built worlds of VR enticed both the popular imagination and venture capital, leading to promises of a billion-dollar industry and forthcoming immersive delights.[2]  After all, the possibilities and novelty offered by VR were all-encompassing. As Tomas A Furness III, director of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington at Seattle stated in 1992, “We can change gravity, we can change the speed of light, we can change the speed of sound. We are all powerful,” (italics added).[3]

The trajectory of the technology, moreover, helped fuel its temporal caché. Skipping the gradual march from the prohibitively expensive to the affordable middle-class standard that is so germane to the early years of most electronics, the Power Glove and prospective VR seemed poised to jump the queue, moving directly “from super computer to entertainment, with nothing else in between.”[4] Thus, to much astonishment and chagrin, the first widely-available VR peripheral was a children’s video game accessory. To the amateur programmers and computer enthusiasts who might otherwise form VR’s early-adopter public, the Power Glove was frustratingly childish and restrictive. To its consumer base, however, the glove was an object resonant with promises of maturity and freedom.

Child's Play

This mixed temporality plays into almost all aspects of how the Power Glove marketed itself to its imagined consumers. While its target public was ostensibly 9-14 year old (white, middle-class, American) boys,[5] the actors and models that publicly represented the device were frequently older. The toy’s television commercial, for example, features a tall, leather-clad man, evidently in his late-teens to early-twenties, alone in an abandoned warehouse playing with the Power Glove on an industrial sized screen.[6]  A different print ad, similarly, features a young teen whose face is largely concealed by thick sunglasses, which do the double work of imbuing the figure with a counter-culture cool and ageing his persona. The independence of age is powerfully conveyed by these ads, with a total absence of parents that was echoed eerily in the contemporary, Nintendo-funded motion picture The Wizard.[7] Even the glove’s instruction manual, most tellingly, styled its content in the form of a dialogue between a young boy named Little Digit and the older, cooler Glove Master who was so much older than his pupil that he occasionally towered out of frame. This discordance is telling in that it echos, consciously or not, the demographic divide between the device’s advertised and actual users. While Mattel’s imagined and depicted consumers were divided between adults and teens, its players were more often seven-year-olds decidedly more juvenile and dependant than either market.[8]

Instruction Manual- Quick Start- page 8

The promises of the glove and the wider VR industry, however, were never fulfilled, leading to a collapse of its imagined publics into unexpected users and uses. Despite the immersive images of the Power Glove, its effect in play was universally detrimental, frustrating gamers with a cumbersome set up and nigh impossible controls. Despite its inutility, however, those lucky enough to secure Christmas 1989’s hottest toy were reluctant to totally abandoned the device. Players frequently elected to wear the glove as an awkward arm-held analog controller, disengaging the motion-sensing technology all together. In some accounts, younger players were simply content to wear the glove as a game-associated object, suggesting that its value for its users fundamentally lay in its function as a marker of social status, rather than its promised mode of use.[9]

Like juvenile gamers adjusting expectations and modes of use, the Power Glove would later form the basis of some speculative VR interface research, adopted by academics and amateurs due to the peripheral’s low cost in the years following its commercial failure. While some initial work was done exploring its potential for transcribing American Sign Language and MIDI composition[10], its physical limitations, lack of out-of-the-box computer-interface compatibility, and discontinued production soon made it an unfeasible avenue of research. This public, too, came to disappear.

Today, the act of looking back at the recent past of this heterotemporal glove has curious connotations. In 2013, the future of 1989 rings with an uncanny mixture of fulfilment and betrayal. New video game peripherals such as the Nintendo Wiimote seem the belated realization of the early ambition of the Power Glove, better supporting the interface of embodied movement with virtual action. As early commentators of the glove point out, however, the immersion achieved by these peripherals is, at best, an enhanced interaction with the controller, rather than the virtual world of the game.[11] The industry’s imagination of entering an artificial and exclusive spatial dimension remains an object of fantasy.

Nostalgia, however, still holds sway. The notoriety and desire that the glove once engendered have contributed to its continued resonance. As an internet meme,[12] techno-remix[13] and namesake of a power metal band[14], the cool, young-adult face of the glove is both parodied and glorified in its new discursive publics- still heterogeneous as ever. Once again, its use exceeds and is indebted to its failure to achieve the fantasies it promised. The history of the Power Glove’s mixed and divergent publics and users echos that of the industry more broadly. Predicated largely on temporal and power-based desires, VR is easy to sell, if not to achieve.

 


[1]“Everything Else is Child’s Play,” advertisement, Mattel, 1989, availiable at http://huguesjohnson.com/scans/nintendo-ads/power-glove-h.jpg.

[2]Mark Potts, “’Virtual Reality’: Sci-Fi Technology on Verge of Billion-Dollar Boom,” Washington Post, 16 August 1992, page H1.

[3]Ibid, H4.

[4]Mike Ransey, Senior Vice President of Silicon Graphics Inc, as quoted in Potts, “’Virtual Reality,” H4.

[5]     Dana L. Gardner, “Inside Story On The Power Glove,” Design News, 45, no. 23 (December 1989): 67.

[6]Mattel, Nintendo Power Glove Commerical, 1989, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HduEC9zBMus.

[7]    The Wizard, directed by Todd Holland, Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1989.

[8]Bill Brownstein, “Where is this Man Leading our Kids?” Gazette, 29 September 1990, E1.

[9]Ibid.

[10]See, for example, Francis K. H. Quek, “Toward a Vision-Based Hand Gesture Interface,” in Virtual Reality Software & Technology: Proceedings of the VRST ’94 Conference, ed. Gurminder Sigh et al., River’s Edge (NJ): World Scientific Publishing Co., 1994, and Bert Bongers, “Electronic Musical Instruments: Experiences of A New Luthier,” Leonardo Music Journal vol 19 (2007): 12-23.

[11]Marshall Rosenthall, “Dare to Compare,” Electronic Gaming Monthly 2, (June 1989): 48.

[12]“I love the Power Glove. It’s so Bad,” Know Your Meme, accessed 29 January 2013, available at http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/i-love-the-power-glove-its-so-bad.

[14]Powerglove (band), http://www.vgmetal.com/.

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