Home > Features > Product Review: 3Dconnexion's SpaceNavigator

Navigating 3D Space

Navigating in Google's SketchUp 6 with the SpaceNavigator is utterly amazing once you get the knack of it. You set up the SpaceNavigator to work with your left hand (if you are right handed) and you use your mouse to control things like push/pull and other tools common to 3d or CAD programs.

A comparison of these operations in SketchUp can be seen in a series of QuickTime movies (QuickTime: qt1 - qt2) which demonstrate typical SketchUp navigation using zoom, pan, and orbital rotate tools versus using the SpaceNavigator. With the SpaceNavigator you can zoom, pan and orbital rotate all at the same time.

It takes about 5-15 minutes to become comfortable with the device. Children under the age of 12 may find the device more difficult but you can make it easier for them by eliminating the tilt/roll functions. In fact, that may be good advice for all beginners. In general, mastering the device is very easy.

qt1: QuickTime Movie
qt2 : QuickTime Movie

To navigate around a model it is helpful to think of the object(s) you are working with in 3d as being the cap of the device. To move the object toward you you grasp the cap and pull it gently up and towards you. To fly up and gain a bird's-eye view of the model you push the cap downward away from you, as if pushing the model away from you. To see this explained in action view the QuickTime movies above.

The benefit of using the SpaceNavigator with a tool like SketchUp or form.Z or any other 3d application becomes obvious within the first half hour of use. In a nutshell, you can work twice as fast. How? Because in all 3d CAD or modeling applications in order to model an object, be it a house or a car, you need to constantly turn around and work on that object from different sides. This means you must stop modeling and "navigate" to another angle or side and then go back to modeling. With the SpaceNavigator you don't have to take the cursor off the modeling tools to navigate because your left hand just moves the object naturally (and within time it feels as natural as driving a car) to the position you want it in in order to complete your work. The whole process becomes effortless and graceful.

Other benefits of the SpaceNavigator include the ability to do "live" fly-by's for client presentations and to zoom around Google Earth as if you were Superman. Apparently the device can be used to navigate traditional 2D programs but we were not able to test that out as support on the Mac for the device is still very limited.

Closing Comments

3Dconnexion is selling the SpaceNavigator PE (personal edition) for 59.USD (the standard edition is 99.USD). Frankly, I think the product is priced too low; at this price Google should be bundling every copy of SketchUp with one. And the same goes for every 3d application company out there.

Its current software support is limited now in the public beta to just three applications but this will expand quickly, no doubt, to many more apps, including Google Earth which was shown running with the SpaceNavigator at Macworld Expo. Our advice to the 3Dconnexion folks is to get out a Mac OS X version of their SDK out (software development kit) as soon as humanly possible. The company told us this should be coming within in about a month's time. And our follow-up advice is for Mac CAD/3D developers to rush to this company to get support for their app.


After using the SpaceNavigator with SketchUp for several days the thought of not using it becomes horrific. SketchUp is transformed into an entirely different realm with the SpaceNavigator at its side. How could anyone ever go back? I know I wouldn't. The SpaceNavigator fits that "insanely great" product definition made famous by Steve Jobs. It is so darn good you wonder how on earth Apple didn't come up with it first. For anyone serious about modeling on the Mac this is a product you need to keep an eye on. For those who are doing Maya, form.Z and SketchUp today, our advice to you is simple: what are you waiting for? Trust us, you will not regret it. ---- Anthony Frausto-Robledo, Editor-in-Chief.

For more information on 3Dconnexion's SpaceNavigator for Mac please go to: www.3dconnexion.com.

Published: 16 Feb 2007.


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