Power Glove Ultra, The Street Finds It’s Own Use For Things

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When William Gibson said, “The street finds its own uses for things,” he was talking about ordinary people taking outdated technology and repurposing it for a different than intended use. The Italian programmer, Alessio Cosenza, has done just that by repurposing the Power Glove from 1989 into something much more useful in a variety of contexts in 2016. This project has nothing to do with the musical band Power Glove, just to stop that preconception before it starts. Cosenza agreed to talk with us about his project.

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What inspired you to convert the outdated Power Glove to modern usage?

The idea came up years ago after reading a document about the hardware and software needed to interface the Power Glove with a computer through the parallel port, but I did not go any further than just reading about the problem details at that time. In 2015, after attending Maker Faire in Rome I decided to start a modding project with this device. My curiosity about reversing obscure platforms mixed with a taste for the 80’s kept me awake at night with a well-defined goal set in mind: bringing the Power Glove to its deserved glory!

Being an IT professional, during my day job I write code using abstraction libraries designed to achieve results in a short time as everyone else does, but when it comes to learning something new I love to dig into things that cannot be easily done. I want to deeply understand how everything works and get to the core of problems until proper solutions are obtained. In my opinion, studying foundations and different algorithmic approaches to solving problems is way more important than focusing on specific technologies: it makes you open-minded and not at all scared to face difficulties. Also, you learn to master re-usable patterns and solutions which aren’t context specific.

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You mentioned on your website that the Power Glove failed because the technology at the time wasn’t mature enough, that has obviously changed today. What do you think the most fundamental shift has been?

In 1989 there were at least three different hand trackers available: the DataGlove (VPL Research’s), the Dexterous Hand Master (Exos), and of course the Power Glove (by Mattel).
The DataGlove was based on fiber optic technology, while the Dexterous Hand master consisted of sensors held over each finger joint by lightweight pads and velcro straps, just like a metallic exoskeleton from the Skynet era.

These two devices were expensive and very hard to use and program so they couldn’t be commercialized. Mattel found a cheaper solution, creating a glove based on two ultrasonic transmitters and three receivers to triangulate the position and orientation of the hand. Moreover, the finger bending amount was obtained by measuring an electric signal coming from plastic flex sensors hidden into the glove. The whole data was processed by a microcontroller on board and sent to the Nintendo NES video game console using a joypad adapter. Which actually sounds cool, but it turned out to be a failure because of the lack of games produced for the glove, and the very imprecise movement and position measurements, not to mention the fact that the receivers (which acted like microphones for the ultrasounds) were easily prone to fall on the floor from the tv.

I will not talk about the obvious hardware evolution since 1989, but let’s point out the increase in possibilities for a single person in the DIY world. Nowadays you can build a VR device, become a famous Youtuber, get a degree or produce your own music professionally directly from your home. It requires a low budget and information is available virtually everywhere. That’s where I see the technological shift: it’s not about a faster processor or a bigger screen, it’s about how people interact with technology in 2016.

Of course, this easiness to obtain information also leads us to questionable situations, such as people having access to almost the entirety of human knowledge on the Internet, yet insisting on spending the day on social networks instead. Just to mention a funny fact, when Google Maps was released and users were able to physically view all places on Earth, the first thing everyone searched for was their home address. So what? I think we are living in the golden age of technology but we are becoming dumber: it’s your choice to be a knowledge venturer or a passive user.

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Before embarking on this project did you have any personal history with the Power Glove?

Throughout my childhood, I wanted the Power Glove so badly! Besides, I am strictly involved with the retro-scene which I find strictly related to the glove. At the age of 6 I powered on my first machine, an Atari2600 Junior (still perfectly working after 25 years, I dare your notebook to do the same), then I started writing buggy basic programs hand-copied from magazines on the Commodore 64 two years later. I grew up with the Amiga, staring at crack intros colours and music for hours before pressing the left mouse button to start the magic. I have produced several of them in addition to demos for the Commodore 64  with my scene group Onslaught. I am currently working on another demo for the 64 and also one for the Vectrex, a 1.5 MhZ machine from 1982 capable of drawing vectors and dots (only).

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It looks like you have specifically designed the Power Glove Ultra to interact with a virtual reality environment. What are your plans for it in the VR space?

Digital motion processing (DMP) technologies are essential in the VR context, and the Power Glove Ultra proved his usefulness in this area since day zero of the developing process. The demos that you can see in “The Awakening” video (below) have been realized with modified assets for Unity video game engine, which offers native support for virtual reality. The chip used in the glove sports a triaxial 14-bit accelerometer, a triaxial 16-bit gyroscope, a triaxial geomagnetic sensor and a 32-bit microcontroller onboard, meaning that the pose of the hand and the acceleration in the XYZ planes can be calculated, not counting the finger bend amount for all the five fingers (the original glove mapped only four in order to send all the bend data in one byte). Also, I can access information about the acceleration variation. Enough to interact with some code that I am currently writing to show the capabilities of the glove used in conjunction with a custom VR headset, also based on open source hardware. At the moment, my goal is to create some test software to let the user have the glove on the right hand, a Wii nunchuck based joystick on the left (already completed and shown in the video), and the headset at the same time. I don’t want to make a complete game but instead, my goal is to write a reusable software layer capable of outputting loads of information coming from the set of devices, so they can be used with existing projects done by others.

What was your technical experience before embarking on this project?

As a software developer I am proficient at coding in several programming languages learnt for fun and currently paying my bills! The funny thing is that I had no real electronic background before the project started: I am a fast learner, though. Also, the Power Glove Ultra gave me a chance to improve my skills in writing some communication software capable of packing data in a fast way, it introduced me to the basics of the 3D video game engine Unity, and improved my math skills in the area of calculations involving three-dimensional rotations using linear quadratic estimation. Not so bad for an Arduino firstie, don’t you think??

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What are your plans for the future of the Power Glove Ultra?

Lots of things! The Power Glove Ultra is, and will forever be, in development for improvements. For example, soon after releasing the presentation video I optimized the firmware in order to compress the transmitted data in less memory to reach a faster sampling value for the glove state. The device has capabilities which can be used in different contexts, even not strictly related to virtual reality. Bluetooth is also a very simple standard to use, so the glove can be interfaced with almost any platform, console or whatever you can think of. A video showing the arcade video game adapter (already completed) will be released soon. I just need to find a Ferrari Testarossa for it, just to spoiler which game will be shown! I am working on this together with Giulio Ferro, the video-maker behind “The Awakening” promo clip. Robotic control and musical performance are interesting fields of research as well.

In the end, I made this project for fun, to learn and get involved in cool collaborations, therefore I am happy to announce that Victor Love and Valenberg of Theta Division Games proposed me to join their forces as a coder for the Virtuaverse point and click adventure game. The Power Glove Ultra will also appear in the game as a collectable item!

 

If you would like to learn more about the Powerglove Ultra project you can visit the official website here.

You can also contact Alessio Cosenza on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

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