SpaceBall 5000
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 11 (November 2004)

SpaceBall 5000

I'll admit that I am seldom cognizant of my mouse, or the extent to which I implement it in my daily work flow—that is, until I feel the all-too-common discomfort associated with its use. The same is true of other input devices at my disposal. And yet, these often-overlooked computer peripherals are a necessary and integral part of my work on a near-constant basis. Several months ago, when I opted to add the SpaceBall 5000 motion controller to my work space, I became aware of the impact of such devices on my productivity. Then, while attending SIGGRAPH 2004, I couldn't help but notice the very same SpaceBall in the hands of creatives at a variety of exhibitors' booths.
Pairing the SpaceBall 5000 with industry-leading software tools, including 3ds max, Maya, and XSI, I trimmed time off my overall work flow.

The SpaceBall 5000 is the brainchild of 3Dconnexion, part of Logitech, a company reputed as knowing a thing or two about constructing quality ergonomic devices. It is designed for two-handed use, in tandem with, not as a replacement for, a traditional mouse. 3Dconnexion offers the SpaceBall 5000 in two versions: Serial and USB. I employed the SpaceBall 5000 USB, which I simply plugged into my Windows 2000-based system.

The 3D controller was accompanied by a CD-ROM, which I used to install the company's 3DxWare driver for my operating system. Installation was simple, thanks to the auto-run CD, and required roughly five minutes. From the CD, I also gleaned plug-ins required to use the SpaceBall with Discreet's 3ds max, Adobe's Acrobat and Photoshop, and the Microsoft Office software suite. A separate CD-ROM offered the plug-in required for Alias's Maya. Also requiring installation, the demo and training applications and a users' manual proved useful in getting me acquainted and up and running with the controller.

In all, the SpaceBall 5000 supports more than 100 popular software programs. In addition to the aforementioned, the list includes Maxon's BodyPaint 3D and Cinema 4D, Softimage|XSI, Kaydara (now Alias) MotionBuilder Pro, and page-layout utilities Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress. The full application list, from which I noticed NewTek's LightWave is missing, is provided on the company's Web site.

Because the device employs a high-precision optical controller, it responds to small movements. Just light pressure, and no wrist or arm movements, is required. And I can predict that maintenance will be minimal, thanks in part to the unit's drift- and calibration-free sensor mechanism. The SpaceBall is sturdy, and wear and tear should be minute, considering its contactless architecture. Despite using the device for several hours a day over a period of several months, I did not experience either physical discomfort or frustration—praise that I cannot bestow upon any mouse I've ever used. Additionally, I noticed no degradation in the quality of the controller or its functionality.

When working with 3D software, I used the controller to pan, zoom, rotate, and spin models, navigate scenes, and edit camera data. In 2D applications, especially Photoshop, the SpaceBall proved effective in scrolling, as well as panning and zooming. With my left hand on the SpaceBall, I was able to use the mouse in my right hand for editing or selecting objects, settings, or programs.

Given my lack of coordination, the new two-handed work style took some getting used to; yet, this is the only learning curve I experienced with the SpaceBall 5000. After an adjustment period of roughly two weeks, I found that I more than made up for the acclimation period by meeting my deadlines sooner. If you're already accustomed to two-handed operation, implementation of the SpaceBall is unlikely to put a crimp in either your style or your production schedule.

My work flow was further streamlined by the device's 12 programmable buttons. With the help of the users' guide, I was able to assign commonly used functions, keyboard modifiers, or macros to each. I found a dozen buttons to be sufficient, and experienced time-savings as a result of their use. I recommend designers and animators consider adopting the SpaceBall 5000, and 3Dconnexion's 30-day trial provides a risk-free opportunity to do so.

Courtney E. Howard is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.

Price: $499
Minimum System Requirements: Intel Pentium 4/III/II/Celeron or AMD-K6/ Athlon processor-based system, and 20mb of free disk space. Serial version: Windows NT/2000/XP, Linux, or Unix for SGI, HP, Sun, and IBM; USB version: USB 1.1 or greater, Mac OS X, Linux, or Windows 2000/XP.