An Oral History of Nintendo's Power Glove

Chris Gentile
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.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Fact Checking Theodore Roosevelt

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

You often hear Theodore Roosevelt described as “larger than life,” which I think we can all agree is pretty accurate. And, as with many other larger than life characters, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding TR—some of which were encouraged and perpetuated by Roosevelt himself. As Kathleen Dalton writes in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, “He sought to keep his inner life and less attractive traits well hidden. He also encouraged his friends and authorized biographers to tell an upbeat, socially acceptable, stiff-upper-lipped version of his life. Many of his friends and biographers obliged him.” Dalton goes on to say that the guardians of his story would edit or destroy letters they deemed embarrassing, and would even hide the family’s secrets to present a better picture of Roosevelt’s life.

Austin Thompson: A lot of this fact checking stuff is to do with his legacy. They really intertwine because these myths and legends are such a part of the story.

That’s Mental Floss’s fact checker, Austin Thompson, who has been taking a magnifying glass to stories on Mental Floss’s website and to our YouTube videos for years, and he looked at every script of this podcast, too. He knows better than many how complicated unraveling the truth behind history can be, so for this final bonus episode of History Vs., I couldn’t wait to get him on the phone to debunk some TR myths and talk fact checking one of the most famous figures in history.

Thompson: I found an absolutely brilliant 1912 New York Times article about Theodore Roosevelt which was saying if you had four experts who swore that he boiled his grandmother and ate her in the 1890s, he would come back with documentary proof that she actually died in the 1880s.

Just a quick break here to say that when Austin was fact checking this script, he realized that he’d misremembered what the article said—it was actually 20 experts, not four. OK, carry on.

Thompson: If you have people who swear under oath that he had a meeting with Standard Oil at this date, he would come back with a dated photograph of him talking to a mother's congress. I think it really has to do with ... that he does come to the White House, and all his history, from a perspective of being a historian. He knows that he's great. He knows his greatness. Everyone his entire life has been clear, he is great. He can produce dated evidence for anything you might say he did. I think it's because he wanted to control his historical view in a way that other people wouldn't, but nowadays we wouldn't think is that weird.

When we were putting these episodes together, the general process went like this: I came up with the themes for each episode, then put together outlines that pulled together a ton of information around those themes. In each outline were sources, quotes, and beats that I wanted to hit, along with pieces of the interviews I conducted that I wanted to include. Then the writer—sometimes me, sometimes another Mental Floss staffer—would use that outline to write the script, which would go through an editing process where myself and members of the production team would weigh in and make tweaks. And finally, before I recorded, the script would go to Austin, and he’d dig in. And I mean really dig in. Not only did he find errors—hey, I’m not perfect—but he would also nearly always find some new piece of information or interesting story that I’d want to include.

Thompson: As I was researching Theodore Roosevelt and looking at all sorts of things, there were two things that struck me about him. One makes fact checking a lot easier, the other one made it basically impossible. He mythologizes, but you can get so much information about him from other sources that aren't him. It'll be like, you spent five minutes with him 10 years ago, you're suddenly writing a book, the time I spent with Theodore Roosevelt. The family he's staying with in Germany who's saying, "Oh he's going to be President." That all exists independent of anything he did. So … he is in control of his image to a certain extent but there's such a world that you can pretty much verify most things he's saying.

And then the other thing that makes this harder, that we've talked about, is the changing views of Theodore Roosevelt. It's like, if you read something from the 1910s, it is a different perspective than if you read something from the 1940s. It's lucky because with Theodore Roosevelt we have so many of his primary documentation, but it's still really hard to sort of sift through all of that to say, well is this person saying this about Theodore Roosevelt because this is actually how it is, or is it just because that was the prevailing view at the time?

Also, socio-culturally we like to think of history as this great monolithic thing. It happened and now we can just kind of go back and look at bits and pieces of it. We as a culture, I don't think we really like to view history as having trends. That there are differences in how history is being viewed from one day to another, one culture to another. We're not taught to think of history in that way.

Erin McCarthy: So when you're fact checking something like the podcast scripts, do you usually try to go for the primary documentation first? Or, in the case of Theodore Roosevelt when you know that he did not like to write about things that were difficult, like, for example, he didn't include his first wife in his autobiography at all, are you looking elsewhere when you're fact checking?

Thompson: Well it depends on the thing. I mean, you know he's there to tell a story. So as long as you read it knowing, read what he says knowing this is the story he wants you to hear, then I always like to go back to primary sources, cause Roosevelt just gave us so many of them. And as I said, so many of the people who even interacted with him briefly would be writing books about the events that happened.

It is when you get into more sort of obscure—especially obscure leaders or figures in history—that it does start to really become a problem of, how much weight are you willing to put on this secondary source? I'm sure if you read some of my podcast suggestions, there are times when it'll be really awkwardly suggesting saying, "This person says this," and that's because it's maybe true but these other sources, say, aren't necessarily as strong.

McCarthy: So we often go back and forth and play a little bit of like, is this OK? What do you think about this phrasing? 'Cause we don't want to mislead anybody, right? We want to make sure that we're being accurate.

Thompson: I have spent ages, like I don't even know how long, debating whether a single word is correct. 'Cause it does make a difference.

McCarthy: Do you want to get into some myths now or do you … do you have other thoughts?

Thompson: I think so. I don't think I have anything else I wanted to talk about with the process of fact checking. It's just kind of like, you go through documents and try to decide is this reasonable? Is this accurate? Does this person say what this person says? Is this person correct? Is this person citing some lost documentation that was found at the top of a monastery in Outer Uzbekistan and then the monastery burned down so you're relying entirely on them? It's hard. 

TR myths, coming up after the break.

 

In the course of making this podcast, we came across a number of TR myths and misconceptions, some of which we touched upon briefly in the regular episodes, and some we just didn’t have time to get to. So we figured we’d finish up this season by digging deeper into a few of them. And if you’re going to take on TR myths and misconceptions, you might as well start at the beginning.

Everyone knows that Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly, asthmatic kid, who, after a directive from his father, built his body to the point where he had cured himself of asthma. Right?

Well … not so fast.

Thompson: According to Theodore Roosevelt, that is what happened. But there's a really interesting paper from a couple years ago, "The Misunderstood Asthma of Theodore Roosevelt." What makes the article interesting, so it says no, the asthma went away when he was somewhere between 12 to 15. And that's about the age you'd expect the asthma to lighten itself up, even if he was doing absolutely nothing.

As the paper notes, “[This] phenomenon is well recognized by clinicians today but was unknown in TR's time. Looking back at TR's inference, it is tempting to speculate about how his misplaced sense of accomplishment may have influenced his thinking about what else he might achieve if he set his mind to solving new problems.”

In reality, his asthma didn’t fully go away and, in fact, it sometimes reared its ugly head later on in his life.

Thompson: When Edith was in labor, Alice—his daughter Alice—remarked something like "the train and my father came in wheezing as he rushed to be by her side." He had asthma attacks throughout his entire life, but they were not as bad. According to the article, at the time and for all of Theodore Roosevelt's life, asthma was thought to be psychosomatic.

The idea that they thought at the time asthma was psychosomatic, I think probably was a really big part of why Theodore Roosevelt wanted to proclaim himself as having cured his asthma. I mean, this was a guy who thinks basically everything is weaker than he is. So if he's truly feeling that his asthma is entirely in his head, it makes sense to me why he would then pretend that it wasn't. That's my opinion on the matter, but yeah.

McCarthy: OK, this is one of my favorites. So there is a photo floating around on the internet in which Theodore Roosevelt is riding a moose. So … did Theodore Roosevelt ever ride a moose?

Thompson: Well not that we know of. He spent a lot of time in Maine, so … but no. The picture is definitely fake. But it was never supposed to be viewed as real. It was from a 1912 New York Tribune. If you just take the picture by itself it's "whoa, manly, that's awesome." But the whole triptych is Taft riding an elephant, Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose, and Woodrow Wilson riding a donkey. It's for the president, and they were whatever the 1912 version of Photoshopped was onto the animal of the respective party. And then I can only imagine someone found a copy of that picture and thought "Theodore Roosevelt, manly!" and went with it.

What I think is kind of interesting about that picture, though, is since it was debunked several years ago, there’s a secondary myth that has since emerged, that the New York Tribune made up that picture as a way to help Roosevelt. When that's not true either—there's no evidence. I mean, yes in the picture, Theodore Roosevelt is bigger than the other two but there's nothing in the New York Tribune to suggest that it's being done to support Roosevelt at the expense of the other candidates. But it's just this sort of weird secondary myth that emerged after the first myth was debunked.

It says a lot about a president by what kinds of myths surround them as we go back. So George Washington, he's not telling a lie. Abraham Lincoln, he's beating 300 people in a wrestling match. It's a myth, but we still want to attach because it's truthfulness and ruggedness on the frontier.

Meanwhile, the great myth about William Howard Taft is he gets stuck in the bathtub. So I think it says a lot about Roosevelt's misconceptions, almost all of the misconceptions we're going to be going through they have to do with how manly he is. By force of will, he punks his asthma. He rode a moose. I think that says a lot not about Theodore Roosevelt, but about how our view of Theodore Roosevelt is shaped.

McCarthy: So one thing that you will often see floating around has to do when TR was sworn in after William McKinley was assassinated. So TR was on vacation in the mountains. McKinley takes a turn for the worse. He barrels down to Buffalo to try to make it to the President's side. The President dies and TR is sworn in, in some guy's house in Buffalo on not a bible. And so the myth is, or the popular conception is, that TR is the first president who was not sworn in on a bible.

Thompson: Yeah, most of those facts are fine until you get right to the end with the bible fact.

The story is that they were in such a rush they couldn't grab a bible. But the guy whose house it was, Ansley Wilcox, he commented later that there were loads of bibles around the house it just didn't occur to anyone to use the bible because that was not the tradition in the area they were in at the time. So you do have earlier that definitely didn't do a bible. John Quincy Adams says explicitly in his diary it was on a book of law. And then later it's sort of hit or miss who's on the bible because most people weren't explicit in recording that until later. What I think the interesting one is after Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, when he's inaugurated after the death of Harding, he did the exact same thing. That they had a bible at hand but it wasn't used because that wasn't the tradition of the area. So it just would not have occurred to anyone that, "Oh yeah we need to use this bible," until later. So yes Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in without a bible. No, he wasn't the first. And despite what some seem to think, no, there's absolutely zero meaning to such a thing, other than nobody thought of it at the time.

McCarthy: But then, you know, like when he was actually elected of his own accord, wasn't he sworn in on a bible at that point?

Thompson: Yes. See, he wasn't making any point. In Upstate New York, they didn't use bibles, and nobody thought anything of it until afterwards, and they're like, “oh yeah, that's how you do it in the rest of the country. Huh.”

McCarthy: OK, I have one more note here for something that ... It's just a question mark. Tattoo? Question mark?

Thompson: Oh god.

McCarthy: And I feel like we have to talk about it because we've talked about it before.

Thompson: Yes. It's like, tattoos and judicial recall. Those are the two stories I'd been hoping to avoid.

McCarthy: OK, so the rumor goes that Theodore Roosevelt had a tattoo on his chest of the Roosevelt Family crest. And it's everywhere. But, dot dot dot, and I'll let you take it from there.

Thompson: Probably not but maybe—is that enough? So I spent, I don't even want to think how long, trying to figure out, like ... did he have a tattoo? And in the end, my guess is probably not, because there are clear descriptions of him doing things bare chested when a tattoo would have been notable, but nobody commented on it. That being said, they might just not have commented on it. And there aren't many pictures of, like, a shirtless Roosevelt during the time period where he's said to have the tattoo. I was really hoping that I could find his autopsy report, but turns out that he didn't have an autopsy after he died, so ...

McCarthy: This got dark.

Thompson: That's the kind of thing you have to look at. Yeah.

McCarthy: It just goes to show the lengths that you will go to ... to figure something out.

Thompson: Yeah. And so, I then tried to trace the myth back, and I don't think I was able to get the myth before the 1970s. So there's like a 50-year gap where there's no mention of Theodore Roosevelt having a tattoo, then it just kind of appears. And I've never, despite lots and lots of looking, been able to close that gap. So ... that is not proof that he didn't have a tattoo, but I'm pretty confident he didn't because, as I said, there were times when people are describing his bare chest and a tattoo would have been noteworthy, and they didn't comment on it.

McCarthy: Yeah. So we end where we began: tattoo, question mark?

Thompson: Yeah, basically.

McCarthy: Are you sick of Theodore Roosevelt yet?

Thompson: No, I'm not sick of Theodore Roosevelt because he's just interesting. I mean, he's definitely such a good person for the first season of this podcast ‘cause I was thinking: There aren't that many people who have reinvented themselves so many times. Most people are fairly consistent in their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, he was like, never more than five, six years at any one thing in his entire career, which makes him a very interesting person to research. And you just keep learning new things about him.

I mean one of the things I find amazing about Theodore Roosevelt is that his entire life he just kind of … he just kind of overshadowed everyone around him. People at the time were saying William McKinley was essentially the next Lincoln. He was viewed as a truly great president. And now: William McKinley who?

McCarthy: Yeah.

Thompson: He makes lists of the most forgotten president and that's because Theodore Roosevelt is just this force of nature that everything around him is dimmed by his incredible Theodore Roosevelt-ness.

McCarthy:
Yeah, a very bright light.

A huge thanks to Austin Thompson for hopping on the phone to chat and for fact checking every episode of this podcast. I truly could not have done it without him.

And with that, we’re wrapping up this first season of the podcast. I have to be honest, we did not intend to stick with TR this long. We had initially planned to launch a new season in June, and then COVID-19 happened and messed up all of our best-laid plans.

But I’m happy to announce that we’ll be back in early 2021 with a brand new season of the podcast, although it’s going to be slightly different than what we did for this first season.

First, we’re going to be changing the name of this feed so that we can put all of our Mental Floss podcasts here, though we’ll only be doing one season at a time, so don’t worry, we won’t be spamming you.

Also, rather than bring you another season of History Vs., we’re going to explore a different topic with a different host—but I promise it’s incredibly compelling, and the host is someone you’ve heard on this podcast before. And there is a bit of a TR connection. So stay tuned!

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

For transcripts, photos, and even more about Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.