3DConnexion SpaceNavigator

I’ve spent the last few weeks climbing the buildings of Manhattan, checking out Sydney opera house, and traversing across the white sandy beaches of the Bahamas. No, I didn’t go on some massive world tour holiday stint (I wish!). I did it all with the SpaceNavigator from 3DConnexion. Part of Logitech, 3DConnexion have a series of 3D navigation products and solutions to fit various uses such as flight simulators, 3D CAD software and virtual Earth applications like Google Earth.

When powered up via its USB connection, you get a cool blue neon glow surrounding the inner circle, notifying you that this device is ready to be used. The weighty and solid design really does feel like a quality product when you’re lifting, turning and pushing it around. Its design goes well with either the left or right hand, depending on how ambidextrous you are, 3DConnexion have intended that you use this in conjunction with and to compliment the mouse whilst you work.

With a solid metal base and a plastic dial, the control system itself reminds me of a joystick and in fact works just like one apart from the lifting and pushing in aspects of it. The 479 grammes that this device weighs in at feels comfortable to lift so when you’re using the zoom out function in Google Earth, which requires you to lift the navigation cap, the whole thing doesn’t end up coming up as well unless you really are pulling on it, then this device will stay put.

At the sides there are two shortcut keys that can be customised as to what they do and are easily within reach of the thumb small finger (or the one next to it).

I’ve been using the SpaceNavigator mainly for applications such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. This device really does excel itself in these types of uses with the ability to manipulate the Earth so easily as though you’re playing with it in your hands. It’s definitely easier to control these applications with the SpaceNavigator than it is to use it with the mouse.

It introduces a completely new concept to the movement and navigation of the 3D earth in Google Earth. With smooth zoom, rotate and pivot actions it’s possible to also move at different speeds simply by pushing or turning a bit harder.

The driver plug-in also allows control over your photo viewer in Windows XP allowing you to very quickly move and zoom in and out of your photos. Most recently, 3DConnexion has announced compatibility with Adobe PhotoShop CS3 on the Mac and Windows platform and NASA’s Earth Wind application (another 3D Earth application) via a driver update from its web-site.

Applications that it ships with support for include over 100 applications, too many for me to name but include 3ds Max, BodyPaint 3D, AutoCad 2008, Google SketchUp, Quicktime VR, Maya, Cinema 3D and an SDK is available to download for you to develop your own plug-ins for this device.

Support for the Mac, Linux and UNIX platform is limited so it would be wise to check out the application compatibility list on their web-site before buying.

Inside the SpaceNavigator is an optical sensor that detects movement from its 6 degrees of movement. The controller cap is where you place your hand and manipulate to control your application. Pressure sensors inside the cap allow you to push and pull, twist and turn the cap either very carefully or with some force and in applications like Google Earth it will control the camera movement of the virtual Earth.

This essentially allows you to navigate in 3D with the ability to pan and rotate objects in real time. The idea is that it saves you time with a more convenient and easier method of 3D navigation through your applications and according to the 3DConnexion literature, the use of both your left hand on the SpaceNavigator combined with the use of the mouse in your right hand will allow you to ‘optimise’ productivity by 30%.

It also means you’re using your mouse-hand less, up to 50% less therefore reducing the amount of strain by distributing the workload to the other hand.

The SpaceNavigator is just one of the many products that are similar in nature to what 3DConnexion have in their product portfolio, and whilst it’s classed as the ‘Personal Edition’ for the consumer end I would find personally find it difficult to justify spending the £39 on it. The Google Earth functionality is flawless and works so smooth and so well that going back to using a mouse to control it just doesn’t feel the same. However, how many of us use Google Earth enough to justify buying this device for it? I know I’ve enjoyed using it with Google Earth and taking myself on some incredible journeys around the world, because some of the images they have on their are stunning and they’re the closest I’ll be able to get to them.

For the architect, 3D CAD professional and frequent PhotoShop users I can see this being an excellent tool for image manipulation. It lacks the need or capabilities for the real consumer market. Had it of included plug-ins to work for the Office suit, Audio and Video editing suites like iMovie and iPhoto on the Mac or Windows Movie Maker on Windows then this would be a fantastic accessory for the home user, but without support for these types of applications it’s going to end up being an expensive paperweight.

There is an impressive list of companies that do use 3DConnexion products ranging from prestigious car manufacturers like Ferrari and BMW to general electronics like Philips, Siemens, Sony Ericsson and Alcatel. This is certainly an impressive portfolio of manufacturers using their products and proves the usefulness of this tool but I’m almost certain that the people with this device in these companies are not spending their time playing with Google Earth.

Retailing at £39 for the SpaceNavigator, this device will be a godsend for those that this device is designed for, but unfortunately that isn’t everyone or even close to everyone unless they are hardcore Google Earth fans. This specialist device fulfils the needs of a niche market such as those that are involved in CAD design and 3D graphics packages such as Maya and 3ds Max. The one good thing it has going for it is that there is over 100 applications that support it, and the SDK is available to download for free so with a bit of know how, you can develop your own compatibility plug ins to make this work with applications that aren’t currently supported.

The lack of OS X support means it’s a no-goer for me with only 5 applications on the list that are deemed to be compatible with the SpaceNaviagtor, but it is nice to see that the recently launched PhotoShop CS3 works with it and I am told that there is a compatibility release in the near future for support with Google Earth and Virtual Earth on the Mac platform.

2007-05-01 Onwah Tsang

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