For the past month I’ve led a double life. It all began when Rory Dooley, president of 3DConnexion, got in touch to let me know he’d be passing by Stockholm, and could he show me a new consumer product they’re developing that works with Google Earth? Obviously I said yes, and thus I soon got to know the SpaceNavigator. The catch: I couldn’t write about it until today.
If you don’t already know 3DConnexion, they’re a subsidiary of Logitech, and they have built their reputation making high-end 3D motion controllers for professional CAD applications. Many CAD pros use these controllers in their left hand to maneuver the 3D environment in which they work, and then use an ordinary mouse in their right to manipulate an object (if they’re right-handed). These controllers have traditionally been expensive, low volume items, aimed at a small market of professional users.
Until Now. The SpaceNavigator Rory demoed is a brand new such device, but is aimed primarily at consumers. Just like the pro models, it works by letting you maneuver a control “stump” through six degrees of freedom: Push along the X, Y and Z axis to pan, and twist along the X, Y and Z axis to rotate. (There’s two ordinary mouse buttons as well.) If you’ve ever played with the red nipple at the center of an IBM Thinkpad keyboard, then you’ve played with a very primitive (2 degrees of freedom) implementation of this concept.
But the SpaceNavigator is not just a piece of hardware. It comes with a driver (Windows XP, Mac promised) that integrates this device seamlessly with both Google Earth and SketchUp. An SDK is coming in a few months, says Rory, so many more 3D applications can soon be made compatible. Clearly, the SpaceNavigator is intended to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of consumer 3D applications.
But does it work? Oh yeah. After about 2 minutes my left hand disappeared and I began to mind-meld with Earth. Think Rotate and that’s what Earth does. Push in and you zoom in. It’s a completely new level of control, and it’s completely addictive. The sensitivity is proportionate to your altitude, so at sea level you can work with sub-meter precision. Zoom out and you can traverse the world in a second. Look up above the horizon if you like, or pan, zoom and rotate all at once. You can make yourself queasy without trying very hard.
But in addition to the ease of use, there are three things about the SpaceNavigator that stand out:
- It’s beautifully designed. It’s the only thing that dares approach my MacBook Pro without breaking into a blush.
- It’s solidly built. The brushed metal circular base is heavy, so you can pull at it without lifting it. The controller itself offers good resistance.
- It’s cheap. $60 (‚Ç¨60) if you’re a home user, $100 if you’re a pro. That’s the same price as my “ordinary” 2D Logitech mouse, and it’s a fraction of the price of all the other 3D motion controllers 3DConnexion offers.
Now for the full disclosure bit. Although I would have bought one, Rory gave me one to play with. I have thus been using the SpaceNavigator for a month at home. While I applaud 3DConnexion’s marketing savvy for incorporating niche blogs in their launch campaign, I’m pretty sure this hasn’t biased this admittedly glowing review. I just really like it.
For a sense of the maneuverability you get in Google Earth, here are two videos I made. The first shows me careening through Wall Street, the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge. The second shows off some close maneuvering around the Eiffel Tower. I used the SpaceNavigator in my left hand for both. (I’m right-handed.)
Some more notes:
I’ve also tested the SpaceNavigator on friends in the intervening month. They all take a few minutes to get their bearings, and then they tend to get possessive with the computer.
Rory said they’ve made a batch of 50,000 of these. At that price point, I suspect they will run out. 3D is the next big thing for computers — even operating systems are going 3D — and I think that this trend will facilitate new ways of navigating. 3DConnexion has an obvious head start. Google Earth now also works with a number of joysticks and flight simulation paddles, but none of these have the six degrees of freedom that SpaceNavigator has.
I’ve also played with SketchUp a little using SpaceNavigator. There is an interesting distinction here: In Google Earth, you maneuver yourself in relation to the Earth — because Earth is big and you are not, so this feels natural. In SketchUp, you maneuver the object, and you remain stationary — i.e the controls are reversed. This is how CAD people use it, but it takes some getting used to if you predominantly use SpaceNavigator to surf Earth. [Update: You can of course change these settings — these are merely the defaults.]
3DConnexion also came out with a more expensive new pro model today: The SpaceExplorer ($300).
Pros can buy the SpaceNavigator for $60 to play with it, and then buy a $40 upgrade online if they decide to use it for work. It’s the same machine and software. What’s different is the support offered.
You can also read a short interview with Rory Dooley.
[Update 10:35 UTC: Gizmodo unwraps one and takes som pics.]
[Update 15:24 UTC: Frank Taylor has his review out. He also likes it.]
[Update 19:59: Engadget's got some more pics.]