Exploring The Third Dimension

A pro tool is now available for all

PHOTO: 3DConnexion

Professionals who regularly work with computer-aided design tools to develop products or who use three-dimensional modeling software to create virtual environments and objects will be familiar with input devices like the SpaceNavigator. Reminiscent of the video game paddle of the 1970s, the SpaceNavigator can be twisted left and right. Unlike those classic paddles, however, the SpaceNavigator can also be pushed and pulled in any direction, including up and down. It can even be tilted.

This type of controller is meant to complement a mouse. With it in one hand and a mouse in the other, users can manipulate and navigate around 3-D scenes and objects, while simultaneously doing edits and issuing other instructions.

What’s new about the SpaceNavigator, from San Jose–based 3Dconnexion, is the price—just US $59, a steep drop from the hundreds of dollars that similar tools have gone for in previous years. Admittedly, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of its more expensive brethren, but its functionality will be just right for many users.

The SpaceNavigator is coming along at a good time, as more and more hobbyists and even regular users are experiencing and developing 3-D content. Exploiting this groundswell, in a clever move that makes both companies’ products much more attractive, Google, in Mountain View, Calif., has built specific support for the SpaceNavigator into two of its most popular free 3-D offerings: Google Earth and Google SketchUp.

While you can use a mouse to navigate in Google Earth, it’s a cumbersome experience compared with using the SpaceNavigator. With the SpaceNavigator, you can zoom around the Earth as if you were flying. A nudge on the controller can send you soaring along the cliffs of the Grand Canyon or through the concrete jungle of New York City.

The SpaceNavigator also considerably improved the experience of modeling objects using Google SketchUp, although it took a bit of experimentation with the program settings to find a setup that worked well for me.

If there’s one drawback to the SpaceNavigator, it’s the associated software. The roots of 3Dconnexion (a Logitech International subsidiary) are in the pro modeling community, where a relatively small number of programs are used, allowing software support for controllers to be built in on a case-by-case basis, as with Google Earth and SketchUp: only the two control buttons mounted on the side of the SpaceNavigator’s base are generally configurable. Ironically, then, even though the device is officially supported only on PCs, I was best able to adapt the SpaceNavigator for ”off-label” uses on my Mac, thanks to a $15 utility program called ControllerMate (available from http://www.orderedbytes.com).

Using ControllerMate, I was able, for example, to use the SpaceNavigator with Apple’s iMovie video-editing software, twisting the device to advance or rewind video clips. I hope that once 3Dcon­nexion begins to see the unexpected ways in which a broader user base is apt to use the SpaceNavigator, the company will support such configurability directly. All in all, though, the SpaceNavigator is a well-made product that’s coming along at the right time and at the right price.

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