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My impressions of 3DConnexion’s SpaceNavigator and the release of SpacePilot Pro

April 20th, 2009

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Another gadget? I’m not an exclusive gadget blogger, but this thing is so damn cool, especially for people who have never seen a 3D mouse in action. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves for a while, because I think it’s important to give a brief introduction about 3DConnexion and my experience with the Space Navigator; the low end 3D motion control solution. The main focus of the blog will be to point out the problems I experienced with the SpaceNavigator, so you know how excellent the new SpacePilot Pro is. 

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3DConnexion is a company that Logitech created in September 2001, after merging two of the industry leaders in 3D Navigation. LogiCAD3D in Europe and Labtec 3D a peripheral business in US. The Magellan controller was one of LogiCAD’s signature products, and was used by NASA to control a robot in space!  Surprisingly, at least to me at first, these two companies together represent twenty years of experience in 3D Navigation.

I only found about these gadgets less than a year ago, after trolling though various message boards discussing 3D software. Every so often I would come across a message board of zealot believers in the benefits of these 3D motion controllers. Many of them could not go back to the old method of navigating through 3D space. Of course their were others who had tried the controller, but found it: difficult, inaccurate, cumbersome, or expensive.

Anyway I purchased a Space Navigator about half a year ago, this model was the low end solution. It just has the “6 degrees of freedom optical sensor” and two extra buttons.  I’ll start with my nicer impressions of the product. Once you get this thing installed and working the motion feels amazingly smooth, and you can get much closer to your models, to check out the most intricate bevels and micro polygon detail. You can show off your 3D models to other people in a much nicer way, by smoothly navigating around, and then flying down to reveal finer details. You can even fly through an intricate curving pipe once you start acquiring a bit of skill using the controller. Oh yes, it does take some skill to use this product, within a few hours I felt confident, and the more you use it, the more natural it becomes.

The traditional method of 3D navigation, is to use your mouse and it’s various buttons, whilst also holding down a keyboard modifier. Each mouse button produces a different camera move: pan, zoom, dolly or tumble. The problem with this keyboard method, is that an artist can only make one style of camera movement at a time. Thus the camera movements feel very mechanical and inorganic.

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Above: Full three dimensional control allows you to combine different camera moves

A 3D Connexion device allows an artist to make any crazy camera movement, like you could if you were holding a camera in real life.

The problem with the Space Navigator is that two buttons for hotkeys just doesn’t cut it. To be an efficient modeller you need to have many hotkeys that become second nature. So the Space Navigator I own is nice to show models off to people and do some occasional checks on topology, and merging vertices accurately, but most of the time my hand is still on the keyboard.I must press hotkeys almost every second, so it just feels to slow to switch hand back and fourth between keyboard and 3D mouse. I imagine this impression would be true for most 3D artists and those involved in computer aided draughting and manufacturing.

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Above: SpacePilot Pro has many buttons allowing an artist to be keyboard free most of the time.

To get my SpaceNavigator working in Maya, the installer presented itself as a straight forward installer, it completed without any errors. After opening Maya I found the installer didn’t display in Maya’s plugin Manager. After a while I worked out the manual way to install the plugin, which was a hassle. I had to copy various scripts, plugins, icons, and other files to many different places on my HD to get it working. After that I needed unplug and plug device back in a few times, before I got it working.

A major issue with the device is its strange but unavoidable driver support issue. Every single piece of software that makes use of a 3DConnexion device has got it’s own hand coded plug-in. So artists will often have to wait weeks or even months for a new plugin, when they upgrade to a new version of software. As an example, 3D Connexion released a new plugin for Adobe CS4 a few weeks ago, months after the software was released.

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Above: Almost full line up of 3D Connexion products: SpacePilot, SpaceExplorer, SpaceNavigator, and SpaceNavigator for Notebook

These plug-ins are actually developed internally by 3DConnexion. There are over 120 applications supported by this device, on multiple platforms. So that would probably kill off a lot of the profit for the company and drive prices up. Apparently to get rid of this issue, operating systems would have to implement and track all the variables that the controller produces. I don’t quite understand it, but I think It is a major hurdle holding the company back from much greater success.

Almost all the problems apparent with the Space Navigator seem to be removed, with 3D Connexion’s new SpacePilot Pro. This isn’t an entirely new product, just a welcome evolution of their most high end product. Check it out at: http://www.3dconnexion.com/spp/index.php

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Above: Logitech shows off their advanced understanding of ergonomics

I have to say something about this super awesome new device, It looks impressive!!! Every keyboard modifier that most 3D programs use are included (esc, ctrl, alt, shift, spacebar). Additionally there is a key dedicated to fit the camera to object, and Menu to quickly open the plugin settings for respective application (which you do access often).There are enough buttons to map the main QWERTY keys in Maya (QWER), which Maya artists use all the time. There are buttons to change the view to side or front views, and hold longer to switch from front to back for example. This combined with a rotate view 90 degrees button, gives quick access to 32 standard views.

There is also two buttons which adjust overall controller sensitivity. In my experience this is something that you want to adjust all the time, dependent on how close the camera is to the model. With the low end SpaceNavigator, you need to load the plugin window, and switch sensitivity, which is slow and distracting from your work.

An entirely new feature is 3D Connexion applets, which are mini widget sort of applications which give extra functionality to the device. Out of the box this product ships with Outlook Mail and Outlook Calendar. You can see your new mail stacking up, and click it to open up in outlook on your computer.  It will be interesting to see if they have released an SDK, to allow developers to create mini applications, or extensions.

extended1Above: New applets such as Outlook give extended application functions at artists finger tips

The new full colour screen can hold libraries of tools, each library holds 10 tools, which can be accessed quickly with the Intelligent Function Keys. So you could have individual sets of polygon, NURBS, particle and fluid tools for example. Or in Photoshop, you could have one library set up as ten different custom brushes.

libraries1Above: Make libraries of tools accessible by five intelligent function keys, hold each button longer to access an additional five functions.

Anyway this is a great new release from 3DConnexion that probably wont be superseded by a new model for a couple of years. I have read some message boards with people disappointed that the product could have been more ambitious, with a larger touch screen. I don’t argue with that, but these devices are already so expensive, I don’t know if it’s a good idea to push their flagship model to a price point that no one is willing to pay for.

4 Comments
  • Jane Radriges
    June 14, 2009

    Hi, gr8 post thanks for posting. Information is useful!

  • Garyk Patton
    June 16, 2009

    I have been looking looking around for this kind of information. Will you post some more in future? I’ll be grateful if you will.

  • Richard J McPhalrin
    July 14, 2009

    Hey great article, really well though out and very much enjoyed.

    Cheers

  • Gert
    September 11, 2009

    So… have you managed to find any additional applets for the LCD?

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