Chicago (IL) – There is no better toy for Google Earth addicts than Logitech’s Space Navigator. The 3D controller acts as an add-on to your desktop and enables users to jump into a rollercoaster virtual sightseeing ride – motion sickness included. It’s about as close to reality as it gets. Here’s a first look at the device.3D mice aren't entirely new. I can remember playing with virtual reality mice taped to my fingers about 12 years ago. There always has been a certain sense of excitement about 3D on the PC for as long as I can remember, but I can’t quite say that I have come across just one useful device with the potential for a mass market appeal and that could replace a traditional 2D-equivalent.
3Dconnexion, since last year a subsidiary of Logitech, has been offering 3D “navigation” hardware for some time now. There is a good chance that you have not heard about this company – not just because the firm’s devices are somewhat buried on Logitech’s website, but also because 3Dconnexion products aren’t exactly mainstream. The company currently sells four different navigation devices, which aim to simplify the navigation within 3D models in more than 400 professional applications such as 3ds Max, Alias Studio, Autocad and Cinema 4D. Prices range from $200 to $400 for these models.
More recently, the company added a scaled down $100 version, which still supports about 100 common 3D applications, but has a clear focus on consumer 3D environments such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. Keeping in mind the 1995 VR Mouse, which violated every ergonomic rule there is, I decided to have a closer look at 3Dconnexion’s Space Navigator.
Unpacking the Space Navigator quickly reveals that this is one substantial piece of hardware. Weighing a good seven ounces, the navigation unit is encased into a polished steel case. The navigation know, which fits well into your average hand, can be pushed forward and backwards, it can pushed down and up, tilted and twisted.
A rubber ring attached to the bottom of the Space Explorer secures the position on the desk and solidifies the impression that this thing is going nowhere once sits in its place. The build quality is excellent.
The installation of the driver software was done within a few minutes and the device was ready to go within a few minutes.
My first flights into Google Earth and Virtual Earth as well as views of 3D models in Photoshop CS3 revealed that the Space Navigator needs fine-tuning for every application, as the hardware reacted with different sensitivity levels to each of these three programs.
The configuration is done in a fairly easy way, given the complexity of the hardware. Users can calibrate the overall movement in a 3D space, as well the availability and speed of pan, zoom, tilt, spin and roll within specific applications. Additionally, there are two buttons on the left and right side, whose functions can be programmed with commands available through the main control panel of the Space Navigator. For example, you can call the control panel, reset the device to default settings or increase the motion sensitivity.
So far, so good. But how does it feel?
In short: Amazing. Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth is where the Space Navigator feels at home. Once the device is activated (this needs to be done manually from the Start menu under Windows), and a blue LED adds some spacecraft feeling to your desk, you are ready to go.
It is worth mentioning that the Space Navigator does not replace the regular mouse, but simply adds additional navigation features. With enough practice, you could keep the mouse in one hand and the Space Navigator in the other.
What makes the 3Dconnexion device special is the fact that, for example, in Google Earth it provides certain features that aren’t available through the simple controls in the application itself. Among the features of the Space Navigator are realistic 360-degree turns without changing the current position. The device can also blur navigation features and allows users to simultaneously turn, tilt and zoom. With a few minutes of training, I was able to simulate helicopter flights through cities – which turned up stunning views wherever realistic city structures are already available. Especially impressive were flights through Berlin, Germany, which has duplicated thousands of city buildings in Google Earth and even allows users to tour the inside of selected structures.
If you are like me, and you are using Google Earth frequently to plan vacations or discover new places around the globe with your children, then this is about as real as virtual reality gets.
Besides the fact that the Space Navigator is a very pricey special purpose mouse, I did not find any downsides. On a more personal level, the device was realistic enough for me to even experience motion sickness after half an hour of flying through cities and canyons on a 22” display.
Is the Space Navigator worth $100? Let’s get real: If you aren’t using 3D applications frequently or if you do not need such a device for your job, it is pure luxury. But if you enjoy flying around virtual globes and spend significant time with Google Earth, the Space Navigator is absolutely worth a look.