Space Devices
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 3 (March 2006)

Space Devices

Years ago, when I first started working with computer graphics, trackball input devices were the rage. Back then, utilizing a computer mouse was for “ordinary” users. However, if you were a part of the creative crowd working with digital images, having a trackball with your desktop PC was commonplace. Today, trackball devices have given way to five-button Bluetooth mice and keyboards, as well as other alternative input devices.

Enter 3dconnexion and its series of high-end input devices for the creative professional. Recently, I had a chance to test-drive three of its unique input devices: the SpacePilot, SpaceBall, and SpaceTraveler. Admittedly, I’m a fan of Logitech mice (using an MX900 Bluetooth right now), so I was anxious to see what the Space products offered and how they performed.

The best explanation of how these devices fit into your production environment is best explained by 3Dconnexion’s slogan “two-handed power.” Back in the day, a trackball was programmable and acted as an input device and a mouse. The 3Dconnexion devices are developed to work in conjunction with your mouse, not as a replacement, which is what I originally believed. At first glance, you might think these hip-looking units will send your mouse straight to Ebay, but actually they are designed to reduce your keyboard usage, not replace your mouse.

The Space series of input devices are designed for Windows 2000/XP, Linux, and Unix systems; unfortunately, the units are not available for OS X on the Mac. Beyond that, the installation of the Space devices was straightforward. The first of the devices I tested was the SpacePilot, which currently only supports Windows 2000/XP. Once the drivers were installed, the SpacePilot started working immediately. (Note that these devices were tested on a Sony Vaio P4 with 2gb RAM running Windows XP Service Pack 2.) Shortly after installing the drivers and software, a straightforward tutorial panel appears with a 3D object and instructions for familiarizing you with the SpacePilot and how the unit works. At this point, you are guided to a game within the configuration panel, to help you set up work flow.

3dconnexion’s Space line complements a person’s mouse, reducing keyboard usage.

Within minutes of installing the SpacePilot on my machine, I had a clear understanding of how it worked, and although I had only scratched the surface of what the device offered, I was hooked. The SpacePilot is highly customizable, allowing you to program the buttons any way you like for simplifying the way you input and manipulate objects. The display on the unit is easy to see. It displays what you’ve programmed and the buttons you’ve pressed.

But you’re probably still asking yourself, what exactly is this thing? I was asking myself the same question. Perhaps the best way to answer it is with a real-world scenario. When working in Softimage XSI, 3ds Max, or SolidWorks, for example, you will need to make tweaks and adjustments in order to model. Normally, you would accomplish this by rotating your view, selecting your adjustment tool, and adjusting the vertex, edge, or polygon using the keys on the keyboard.

With the SpacePilot, you literally have one hand on the model to rotate, adjust, or even paint it. The SpacePilot controller rotates, pans, and zooms models or animations in several 2D and 3D applications, and includes 21 keys that are labeled for specific functions within your application. The first six keys are viewable on the unit’s LCD display, but an unlimited number of function configurations are available. You can control different modes such as Modeling, Animation, Parts, Assembly, and so on. One very nice feature is that the SpacePilot software automatically detects the software programs installed on your system and automatically configures the controller to support those programs.

The main knob on SpacePilot is the motion controller. It has six degrees of motion, making it easy to navigate with just one hand while editing with your mouse in the other hand. To the right of the motion controller is a Fit button, which is great to quickly fit your model to view. The Keyboard Modifiers on the SpacePilot allow your hand to remain on the controller while typing shortcuts. I found the Ctrl, Alt, Esc, and Shift options on the SpacePilot very useful, not realizing how often I use these functions until I started reviewing the unit.

Another addition the 3dconnexion Space series is the SpaceBall 5000, which supports Windows 2000/XP, Linux, and Unix. This unit performs similarly to the SpacePilot, but has 12 programmable buttons and no LCD display. It offers the same six degrees of motion and functionality of panning, zooming, and rotating 3D objects in real time, like the SpacePilot. The SpaceBall controller is best suited for CAD/CAM/CAE, animation, and game development.

The last in the Space series is the Space Traveler, which supports Windows 2000/XP and Linux. I really like this little device because of its compact size. It has six degrees of motion like the other 3dconnexion products, and is designed for motion control. Basically, it offers the features found on the main knob of the SpacePilot. However, with the SpaceTraveler, you can easily tuck it in your laptop bag when working remotely. It also offers eight illuminated buttons around the base of the knob to give it more programmable functionality.

Digital content creators are always looking for ways to work smarter and faster. A mouse and keyboard combination has, by default, been the way modelers and animators have input and manipulated 2D and 3D objects for many years. However, that way of working can be limiting-the mouse only delivers one movement at a time, and the artist has to continually stop and start the creative process to adjust viewports, models, animation, etc. By adding the 3dconnexion Space devices to your system configuration, not only can you expect to save a great deal of time and frustration, you can expect a work flow boost, too.

Dan Ablan is president of AGA Digital Studios in Chicago and founder of He is also the author of numerous books, including The Official Luxology Modo Guide from Thomson Course Technology.


Price: $499
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 2000/XP; Intel Pentium 4/III or AMD Athlon processor-based system; 20 mb free disk space; USB 1.1 or 2.0

Price: $499
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 2000/XP, Unix (SGI, HP, Sun, and IBM), and Linux (64-bit available)

Price: $199
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 2000/XP, Linux; Intel Pentium 4/III or AMD Athlon processor-based system; 20 mb free disk space; USB 1.1 or 2.0