The Space Navigator is an odd little widget. It’s perhaps best described as a kind of 3D mouse, and was originally developed for professional designers, engineers and architects who work with complex 3D graphics programs such as AutoDesk.
Instead of simply moving up and down, or left and right, as an ordinary mouse does, the Space Navigator allows you to work with 3D objects and images by tilting, rolling, or zooming in and out of the screen to get a better view.
At first glance, the Space Navigator just looks like a small dial or knob that sits on your desk, held in place by its weighty metallic base. But once you start to experiment with it you soon realize that it’s actually more like a small joystick, as it allows you to view 3D objects by tilting it backwards and forwards to roll around objects, or twisting it to spin clockwise or anti-clockwise. You can also push down on the central knob to zoom in on the surface of the object, or pull it up to zoom away.
The advantages for 3D designers are obvious, but in recent months, the developers at 3DConnexion have attempted to broaden the Space Navigator’s appeal to a wider range of users. They’ve released a ‘Notebook’ model, which is smaller and lighter than the original Personal Edition version (not to mention rather more expensive). They’re now promoting the Space Navigator to users of Photoshop – where it can be used to quickly zoom in and out, or pan across large images. It can also be used with Google’s free Sketchup design program, Google Maps, and even the online virtual world of Second Life (there’s also a list of other compatible programs on the 3DConnexions web site).
Getting used to the 3D controls isn’t difficult, however the poor documentation did cause some problems at first. The skimpy Quick Start guide fails to mention that you need to install special plug-ins for programs such as Photoshop and Sketchup in order to use them with the Space Navigator, and we were forced to call their technical support team for help in order to set the device up properly.
The incomplete installation guide is simply sloppy, and the relatively high price of the Notebook model (£90) means that we’d be more inclined to recommend that people try out the less expensive Personal Edition for £39. But note, the Personal Edition is not licensed for commercial use, so you if you are planning on using it for work then you’ll need to fork out £89 for the Standard Edition of the same product. However, if you’re a regular user of 3D design software – or just hooked on Google Earth – it could still earn its keep by improving your productivity with those programs.