Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 10 (Oct. 2008)

Invaluable Input


Input devices, although often overlooked, are integral to the digital content creation process and vital tools for today’s professional. A great deal of careful consideration is put into selecting the optimal workstation, software packages, and servers, while, historically, little attention has been paid to computer peripherals—that is, until now. Today, DCC professionals are reassessing their computer peripherals, such as the mouse and pen tablet, upon which they rely daily to do their jobs effectively, efficiently, and exceptionally.

The market bears a wealth of options for creative professionals ready to relinquish their standard-issue mouse in favor of a more personal and customizable 3D mouse or pressure-sensitive tablet.

Although affordable and easy to use, today’s input devices are a sophisticated amalgamation of advanced technologies.
When it comes to selecting the optimal input device, creatives have their choice of a wide range of designs and styles, feature sets, capabilities, and technologies. Each individual tool offers a different combination of optical, sensor, connectivity, ergonomic, and 3D innovations. With such an array of available options, finding the optimal device to fit one’s own unique needs, workflow, and style can be challenging.

Numbers Game
Every input device is virtually as unique as the person using it, but all deliver the promise of increased productivity, comfort, and creativity. The first place to start when shopping for the optimal input device is the spec sheet. 

“Creative teams deal a lot with pixels, fine lines, and other aspects of work needing very concise precision, and their input device needs to keep up with that,” says Robert “Razerguy” Krakoff, president of Razer, a manufacturer of cutting-edge peripherals for the computer gaming industry. “We have built our input devices to be precise and responsive, which are the exact qualities any DCC person looks for in an input device, given the nature of the job.”

Precision is an all-important characteristic, as is responsiveness. If an input device is lacking in one or both traits, frustration will most certainly ensue and the device soon relieved of its duty. Precision, or accuracy, is measured in either dots per inch (dpi) or inches per second (ips). Responsiveness, or how quickly the device responds to user input, is relayed in milliseconds (ms); for example, many popular mice offer a 1ms response time.


SpaceNavigator from 3Dconnexion delivers 3D navigation to architects, artists, students, and other 3D enthusiasts, as well as supports for more than 100 powerful 3D applications.
 
Razer’s new DeathAdder for the Mac, reportedly the world’s first 3g infrared-sensor gaming mouse, boasts impressive numbers. “It tracks at up to 120 ips, has Ultrapolling at 1000hz/1ms, and maxes out at 6400 fps, which equates to 5.8 megapixels per second, on top of ergonomic considerations we have vested in the mouse,” says Krakoff. Razer’s 3G Laser Sensor, which powers the Razer Lachesis gaming mouse, achieves a maximum of 4000 dpi, whereas its 3G Infrared Sensor offers a maximum 1800 dpi and drives the Razer DeathAdder.

“Dpi is overrated,” cautions Krakoff. “Dpi has been incorrectly perceived as the defining metric of mouse performance, which has led to both a simplistic view of mouse performance and an attempt by some manufacturers to take advantage of the popular perception by artificially inflating the dpi specifications of their mice.”

While dpi is still a factor to be considered, a more accurate measurement of a mouse’s capabilities lies in its ips, explains Krakoff. Ips is the maximum speed at which the mouse can move over the surface and still retain accurate tracking without resulting in random cursor movements. “Ips is key for DCC practitioners, since they need very accurate input devices to enhance their productivity and workflow,” he says.

Ips performance is variable, however, and depends on the uniformity of the surface being tracked, Krakoff notes. In general, laser sensors achieve superior ips on smooth surfaces, whereas optical sensors attain high ips figures on less-uniform surfaces. As a result, he explains, sensor manufacturers typically provide conservative ips estimates that take into account the most common dedicated mouse surfaces.

Specs can be important, says Tan Yng Jich, Razer’s assistant marketing manager (creative) with global design responsibilities pertaining to the company’s marketing and retail collateral. “You can save and buy a cheap mouse, but at the end of the day, it might waste you more time because it’s not precise or responsive enough, and you end up not being efficient.”
All these specifications considered, optimal mouse selection doesn’t come down to just numbers.

Beyond Specs
With just a glance around a creative studio, department, or work group, it quickly becomes evident that no single, perfect input solution exists for everyone. One’s choice in an input tool is likely as unique, individual, and personal as the hand that controls it.

A growing number of creative professionals are abandoning the one-style-fits-all approach and shunning the standard (and, in some cases, sub-standard) mouse offered with their workstation. The choice of input device is a personal one, and yet a number of characteristics should be considered before making a final purchasing decision.

DCC professionals rely on their input device day in and day out. It is the tool with which they interface with their workstation, their programs, their projects, and their own designs. It is important to consider the way they work, the tools they use, and the types of projects with which they are involved to determine their unique needs.

“Our customers who work on 2D and 3D content find themselves in many areas of specialization, and it is their respective specialization that defines specific computer input needs,” explains Scott Rawlings, vice president of marketing at Wacom Technology, a maker of pen tablets, interactive pen displays, and digital interface solutions.

“3D artists and content creators represent a much more complex realm with a wide variety of segmented workflows that combine to make up highly evolved projects—for instance, animated feature films,” Rawlings continues. “There are character artists, texture artists, storyboard artists, directors, modelers, animators, compositors, engineers, and so forth, all playing important roles to make possible the vision of the driving creator and director. Each player has specific input needs.”

Razer unveiled its Death-Adder gaming mouse with a 3G infrared sensor and ergonomic, right-handed design for maximum gameplay and extended use.
 
Technology companies are taking this information—the way people work and the tools they use—into consideration when designing modern input devices. Today’s creative trends and processes influence, for example, whether a product design offers quick and easy access to shortcut keys and implements specialized sensors for common tasks, such as pan and zoom.

“Wacom’s tools increasingly consider not only the tool in the hand of the end user, but also the overall workflow of the artist, designer, or engineer,” says Rawlings. “The acuity, pressure sensitivity, and natural ergonomics of a pen input solution all fit the needs of working digital artists, especially those who include freehand aspects to their digital workflow.” 

Professionals are professionals for a reason, Rawlings points out. “They should look for tools that do the job well, and with consistency and durability. In the digital realm, they should also look to tools that are regularly updated and supported, and have a strong following.”

Workflow Integration
As with any other newly acquired hardware or software tool, the input device should support and integrate seamlessly into a pre-existing workflow. “Hardware is only as good as its integration with software,” advises Rawlings, “so you want to make sure that the integration is as seamless as possible. You should not be able to discern where the hardware leaves off and where the software begins.”

Froi Lomotan, director of advanced software technology at 3Dconnexion, a Logitech company that designs and manufactures navigation input devices, agrees. “In addition to being easy to use, input devices need to integrate seamlessly into existing workflows and provide a more natural and intuitive way to interact with designs.


Adesso CyberTablet Z12 is a widescreen, ultra-slim graphics tablet for drawing, sketching, picture editing, and more.
 
“Creative professionals should look for an input device that allows the application interface to ‘drop away,’ giving them direct interaction with their digital creations,” Lomotan continues. “An effective input device should enable creative professionals to spend less time navigating their applications, and more time on design and innovation. And, most important, the device should integrate seamlessly into their existing workflow with a minimal learning curve so that it doesn’t interfere with their creative ‘flow.’”

Nothing is more intuitive than working directly on an image, or a blank sheet of digital paper, says Rawlings. With this in mind, Wacom personnel designed its newest product, the Cintiq 12WX pressure-sensitive pen tablet, as a thin and light digital canvas.

“Our users are inspired by being able to work directly on a flat digital display in ways that relate literally to their core art and design training,” reveals Rawlings. “It’s not uncommon for our customers to even use rulers and graphic primitives—for instance, French curves—directly on the Cintiq while working.” Further mimicking natural art materials, the Cintiq is small, thin, and light, so as to be easily transported and set up at remote client locations, and the ergonomic design is conducive to use on a lap, flat on a desk, or at an angle. In fact, portability and comfort are two other input device characteristics to consider.

3D Mice Benefit CAD Design Engineers

“The Economic Payback of 3D Mice for CAD Design Engineers,” a whitepaper based on the findings of Technology Assessment Group (TAG), reveals the benefits CAD professionals gain from 3D input device adoption.

Key findings include:
      More than 84 percent of CAD engineers report a noticeable or significant improvement in their product designs and their ability to detect design problems as a result of using 3D mice.
      The average productivity gain reported by CAD users while using 3D mice is 21 percent.
      The payback period for 3D mice is very short, typically less than one month.

Corporate and academic research has shown that two key 3D mouse factors significantly improve the performance of people using intensive 3D applications:
      6DoF (six degrees of freedom) devices for quickly orienting 3D objects or views.
      Devices that enable working with both hands simultaneously (for example, a 3D mouse in one hand and a traditional 2D mouse in the other hand).

According to the surveyed users, a 3D mouse enabled them to much more easily rotate, inspect, and explore their designs. As a result:
      85 percent saw a “noticeable” or “significant” improvement in their product designs.
      84 percent thought they could “noticeably” or “significantly” improve their detection of errors
      CAD designers reported that they were, on average, 21 percent more productive using a 3D mouse than they were without a 3D mouse. More than 86 percent of the users reported productivity increases, ranging from under 10 percent to over 50 percent.
      Nearly half (45 percent) of the users reported they were more productive within two days, and 68 percent were more productive within the first week of using a 3D mouse.

(Information excerpted from “The Economic Payback of 3D Mice for CAD Design Engineers,” courtesy of 3Dconnexion, a Logitech company.)



3Dconnexion, a Logitech company, offers a family of ergonomic, 3D motion controllers.

A Perfect Fit

“Input devices that reduce physical fatigue and discomfort are essential for creative professionals who spend hours on end navigating sophisticated and complex applications,” says Lomotan.

“Make sure you are comfortable with the device,” advises Razer’s Jich. In the case of a mouse, many folks recommended choosing one that fits as perfectly as possible in the palm of the hand, to help reduce wrist extension. Also ensure that the input device, whether a mouse or a wireless pen stylus, glides smoothly in response to user actions, to reduce not only tension in the wrist, but also restrictions in blood circulation that can lead to injury. Some professionals laud the benefits of a mouse or stylus that can be easily configured for left- or right-hand use, which is thought to lessen the impact on one wrist.

3Dconnexion’s newest product, the SpaceNavigator for Notebooks, takes many of these design elements into consideration. Based on the company’s SpaceNavigator 3D mouse, the new tool is designed to be a compact and ultra-light travel mouse for mobile 3D designers and other professionals. “Now, a creative professional can travel to a remote location or work on the road and still benefit from the productivity gains—on average, over 20 percent—provided by 3Dconnexion’s 3D mice,” says Rawlings. 

The SpaceNavigator and SpaceNavigator for Notebooks also incorporate a cap design intended to increase comfort, be more natural and immersive, and enable left- and right-hand use. 


3Dconnexion’s SpaceExplorer 3D mouse offers compatibility with more than 100 popular 3D design and visualization applications.

Look, No Hands

“Because our professional customers’ workflow is very different than the general computer user, they tend to be much more at risk for repetitive stress injury,” says Rawlings. “Digital content creators are typically working with their input device all day long without any break, with their non-dominant hand on the keyboard and their dominant hand on their input device, whereas the typical computer user is often moving between both hands being on the keyboard to one hand being on the mouse.”

Having a pen input solution enables users to vary their input method and tool, alternating between a mouse and pen, for example. Some customers claim that Wacom products have saved or extended their creative careers, as well as enabled longer working hours, Rawlings maintains. 

“Some DCC professionals prefer using tablets, others prefer a mouse—I think it’s a matter of personal preference,” says Krakoff. Most, however, elect to use both. Perhaps nothing speeds a workflow and increases productivity faster than working with an advanced input device in each hand simultaneously.


DCC professionals are accomplishing more, armed with an advanced input solution, such as the SpaceNavigator motion controller from 3Dconnexion, in each hand.
 
“I currently use a Wacom Intuos 6x8 tablet, a Logitech MX Revolution mouse, and a 3Dconnexion SpacePilot 3D controller,” says Bradley W. Lewis, senior artist for Midway Studios in Austin, Texas. He operates as a lead-level artist responsible for UI, special effects, advanced material creation within the Unreal 3 Engine, and hard-surface modeling on weapons and vehicles.

Throughout his career, Lewis has tried several different input devices, ranging from add-on game controllers with programmable buttons for use with 3D applications and Adobe Photoshop, to various state-of-the-art mice. “I chose the SpacePilot because I wanted an edge over other artists in my industry,” he explains, “and the SpacePilot is immensely useful in my work. In [Autodesk’s] 3ds Max, I can cut my work time on any particular model to a third of what it would be otherwise. It completely removes any barrier I have between me and my work, and is a fluid, streamlined way to interact with my mesh, mapping, and so forth.”

Measurable Benefits
“Whether it’s finalizing an advanced animation effect or adding complex layers to a virtual character, digital content creators, CAD engineers, and other professionals with similar workflows are typically using complex applications hours upon hours each day,” says Lomotan. “As a result, they are always looking for creative tools that help them streamline their design process while increasing the quality of their designs.” 

Intuos customers report that they save 50 to 100 percent on the time it takes to do a job after they have become proficient with pen tablet workflows, which can typically take anywhere from one day to one week of dedicated use, depending on the end user, Rawlings says. “Our Cintiq customers typically tell us that they save 100 percent or more time and that they have a much easier time becoming proficient with pen input workflows,” which he believes is because working directly on an image is natural and intuitive. 
 

The controller cap common to all 3Dconnexion devices is designed to deliver six degrees of freedom, as indicated by the arrows.

It is a similar story with 3D mice. A whitepaper, titled “The Economic Payback of 3D Mice for CAD Design Engineers,” highlights a recent survey that revealed CAD engineers are dramatically more productive and efficient when using 3Dconnexion’s 3D mice (see pg. 28). A majority of the survey’s respondents indicated that using a 3D mouse significantly increased their productivity and design performance, and made it easier to identify problems, improving the overall quality of designs. The whitepaper, based on the findings of Technology Assessment Group, an independent product consulting firm specializing in product evaluation and productivity measurement, concludes: “User interface research by GE, IBM, and the University of Toronto suggests that substantial productivity gains should result from using well-integrated 6-degree-of-freedom devices for complex 3D applications such as 3D CAD.”

Future within Reach
The complexity of 3D applications will only increase in the future and, in turn, amplify the need for more interactive navigation and increased control, beyond what can be attained with a traditional mouse, predicts Lomotan. “DCC applications will continue to evolve and push the limits of content creation. 3Dconnexion’s goal is to continue to evolve our 3D mice to provide greater comfort, increased control, and expanded performance with the latest technologies to continue to help designers interact more naturally and directly with their creative environments. 3D mice are fast becoming a ‘must have’ design tool for today’s creative professionals.”

More and more DCC professionals are beginning to recognize the need for a precise instrument that will increase their productivity and efficiency, reveals Krakoff. “At the end of the day, using a more efficient—but familiar—input device that is easily adjusted to has allowed many professionals to increase their efficiency with little or no downtime in their work. As this pervades more of the general conscience, we will definitely see more DCC professionals that appreciate a high-quality input device that performs measurably better than comparable competing products.”

Technology firms continue to push the state of the art in input devices. Wacom, for one, is working with key partners to look at ways that input devices can not only streamline the workflow, but also feel more comfortable and intuitive. After all, says Rawlings, “input solutions should be easy, natural, and intuitive.” To that end, Wacom is investigating the benefits of touch input for DCC pros.
 
“Apple is having a significant impact on the industry with the iPhone and with new implementations of touchpads on Mac Pro laptops,” Rawlings observes. “This is definitely an area to watch, and it has the potential to impact DCC pros longer term, in ways yet unconsidered. Touch input is an evolving area, and many researchers are just now tapping the potential for how this might impact workflow in the future, but this will not obviate the needs for highly specialized and customized input solutions for animation and modeling.”

Krakoff, too, sees potential in a number of technologies, such as motion tracking and multi-touch screens, but “they are all either still in their infancy and require more work, or are much too expensive to be used on a wide scale.” Even so, he recognizes that these options are “among many possible candidates that will revolutionize the industry, but only time can tell. The only thing I can say for certain is that whichever solution becomes prevalent in tomorrow’s society, it will be a much more intuitive solution that will naturally mirror normal human motion, tendencies, and ergonomics.”

Lewis, like other DCC professionals and enthusiasts, is grateful for innovators and innovations in the field. “I want to thank the great folks who create these innovative input devices that make my job as a 3D artist so much better,” he says. “Any input device is a tool, an extension of your creativity into your work space. It should feel natural, it should be easy to use, but don’t hesitate to try new things and give new devices a chance. Try things that weren’t designed for work, such as programmable add-on game controllers and keypads; if you can assign a macro to it in your games, you can assign a macro to it for work. Find something that works for you; it doesn’t have to be the most expensive thing, but it has to work for you.”

Pre-purchase Check List

Among the characteristics to consider when selecting an input device are:

- Precision—dots per inch (dpi) and inches per second (ips)

- Response/sampling rate— frames per second (fps)

- Connectivity—wired (PS2, USB) or wireless (infrared, radio frequency, Bluetooth)

- Battery—rechargeable or disposable

- Tracking—optical or laser

- Support—operating systems, software, and technical support

- Timesaving and value-added features—shortcut keys, programmable buttons

- Ergonomic design—comfort, ambidextrous use

- Cost

Input Device Vendors

3Dconnexion

www.3dconnexion.com

ACECAD
www.acecad.com

Adesso
www.adesso.com

Aiptek
www.aiptek.com

Contour Design
www.contourdesign.com

Immersion
http://immersion.info

InterSense
www.isense.com

Logitech
www.logitech.com

Razer
www.razerzone.com
www.razerpro.com

Saitek
www.saitekusa.com

Sandio
www.sandiotech.com

Solidtek USA
www.solidtekusa.com

Wacom
www.wacom.com

Courtney E. Howard is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at cehoward@twitchcafe.com.

Visit www.cgw.com for comprehensive information about groundbreaking input device designs introduced at SIGGRAPH 2008 in this year’s New Tech Demos.

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