Navigate 3D Space With Space Explorer

Sergio Rosa [nemirc] - Sr Staff Writer

Last august at SIGGRAPH, I had the chance to meet with 3Dconnexion, a company that makes 3D navigation devices that work on different applications (there’s a list of compatible applications here, and it’s updated frequently as more applications take advantage of the 3D navigators).

During the last couple of weeks I’ve been using the Space Explorer navigator as part of my usual workflow, and while it takes some time to get used to it, you end up wishing that all your applications offered 3D navigator support.

 

 

The Space Explorer offers six degrees of freedom, meaning that you can move it up, down, side-to-side, back and forth, and also rotate it on any of the three axes. These movements can be applied to either the camera or the object, depending on what you want to do. Besides, you can move in more than one axis at the same time.

When it comes to 3D navigation, all of the 3D mice have the same functionality. The difference is the extra buttons that some of them have. For example, the Space Navigator series don’t have extra buttons, while the Space Explorer and the Space Pilot have customizable function buttons.

 

 

The Space Explorer has two function buttons, a “-“ and “+” button that are used to decrease or increase the sensitivity, a set of buttons equivalent to the Alt, Ctrl, Esc and Shift keys, an “open Control Panel” button, a “Fit view” button, and also a set of buttons for view – switching (top, left, right and front). Another nice touch is the ergonomic design, meant to let you rest your wrist as you use the device.

The software includes a control panel where you can configure the settings for your applications; although some applications offer a customized control panel (Maya is one of them). A feature I did miss was the fact that you can’t customize your buttons for applications that you’re not currently running. For example, if you’re using Photoshop, you can change your settings in the control panel (the settings are stored, so next time you start Photoshop you get your customized settings), but you can’t customize your buttons for Cinema4D or Maya unless they are running. That’s a shame, since I can add new customized app configurations to my Wacom tablet or my ShuttleXpress jog wheel for both active and closed applications.

 

 

One of the features I found more useful was the “dominant axis” setting. If you’re having trouble getting used to the six degrees of freedom, you can use this setting to move in one axis at a time. When you’re used to the device, you can go ahead and use the six degrees of freedom.

 

 

Another useful feature is the sensitivity control. You can increase or decrease the camera’s speed using these buttons, and you will find yourself switching this sensitivity more than you expected. Maybe you’re using Photoshop and you rotate your wheel to change your brush size, so you increase your sensitivity to make the brush resize faster. Now, since you were zooming, the camera pan occurs too fast, so you decrease the sensitivity and then move across your image.

In many (if not all) 3D applications you need to use “selection modifiers”. For example, in Maya you can hold the Shift key in order to select multiple objects by clicking on them on the viewport. Keeping this in mind, the Space Explorer includes all the modifier keys (Shift, Alt, Ctrl, Esc). If you now combine your Space Explorer with your Wacom tablet (with mapped keys on it, of course), you will rarely touch your keyboard while you’re working.

It takes around two weeks to get used to the Space Explorer, and during your transition you will likely feel a little frustrated because the resulting camera movement is not exactly what you were aiming for. That’s why it’s always a good idea to use the dominant axis setting combined with the sensitivity control. In the end you will likely find that the device makes your work a lot easier.

System Requirements

  • Intel Pentium 4/III or AMD/Athlon™ processor based system
  • Windows: 140 Megabytes free disk space for driver and plug-in installation
  • UNIX/Linux: 2 Megabytes free disk space for driver installation
  • USB 1.1 or 2.0

Operating System Supported

  • Windows XP x86 or x64
  • Windows Vista 32-bit or 64-bit
  • Windows 2000
  • UNIX (HP-UX 11, IBM AIX 5.2, Sun Solaris 8 or greater)
  • Linux (Redhat Enterprise Linux WS 3, SuSE 9.0 or greater)

For more information, please visit the 3Dconnexion website.

*Check out a video presentation of 3Dconnexion's Space Explorer from Sergio, in Renderosity's Video Center.

About 3Dconnexion
3Dconnexion, a Logitech company, designs, manufactures and markets an award-winning line of navigation input devices (also called "motion controllers") for accelerating user productivity. More...


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Animation Alley is a regular featured column with Renderosity Staff Columnist Sergio Rosa [nemirc]. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields.

September 22, 2008

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