First Look: Space Pilot-Intelligent 3D Motion Control

31 Aug, 2005 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth

3DConnexion offers an intuitive controller for working with 3D modelers.

Let me start off by saying that I love 3Dconnexion's 3D input devices. Once you get used to one, working without it is sheer torture. I have bought in completely to the two-handed paradigm (mouse in one hand and 3D motion controller in the other). But that's not to say I think the company has perfected its products.

Basic Functionality

The SpacePilot (figure 1) is 3Dconnexion's latest 3D input device, used to control the orientation of a 3D model on screen. The tips of your first two fingers and thumb apply light pressure to the knob at the center. Twist, and the model rotates in that direction. Push and the model moves away. Pull up, and the model . . . well, you get the picture. It's like holding the model in your hand.

Figure 1. The Space Pilot (top right) is the latest addition to 3DConnexion's line of 3D motion-control devices. Other models include the CADman, which offers basic 3D control; the SpaceBall 5000 with its spherical knob; the SpaceMouse, which has a puck-shaped knob; and the SpaceTraveler for laptop use.
Figure 1. The Space Pilot (top right) is the latest addition to 3DConnexion's line of 3D motion-control devices. Other models include the CADman, which offers basic 3D control; the SpaceBall 5000 with its spherical knob; the SpaceMouse, which has a puck-shaped knob; and the SpaceTraveler for laptop use.

Several names have been associated with this product line: Spacetek, Labtek, Logitech, and now 3DConnexion. The product was first developed as a controller for the space shuttle's robotic arm. It had pressure sensors that read what the operators did and translated that to the motors that controlled the arm. Later versions left the expensive and fragile pressure sensors behind, opting instead for cheaper and more rugged optical technology.

Buttons and More Buttons

One of the first things you'll notice about the SpacePilot is the plethora of buttons. There seems to be a button for everything—one to rotate right, one to rotate left, one for up, and one for down. There's even one for expanding the view in your graphics window to fit the screen. All buttons are programmable

The thing I've always disliked about the SpaceBall (4000 and 5000) is how the buttons are arrayed around the ball. Though they are close at hand, it's easy to hit them accidentally, and there are so many that I can't always remember which one does what.


The new SpacePilot solves a good deal of this trouble with its LCD screen, which shows the function of each of the six keys below it. The buttons change their functions depending on which application is in use. That's right—the buttons do different things in Outlook than in Windows Explorer or Unigraphics.

The six buttons below the LCD feel like a continuous bar spanning the unit. In fact, they are broken up into three sets of two buttons, separated by blank keys that don't move. I think this could be designed better. You still have to look at the LCD to find the function you want, and then you have to find the button. Of course, with time I will probably get used to the keys and not need to look to find them.

I also noticed that it sometimes took the LCD screen several seconds to switch between programs. I would leave my 3D modeling program to check an e-mail in Outlook, and then switch back. I grabbed the control knob and nothing happened. I looked down and waited. In a few seconds the LCD changed and the SpacePilot was active in the 3D modeler. I'm not sure how much overhead the drivers have, but they could and should be quicker. 3DConnexion is developing new drivers that may help—they'll be available for download at


Ergonomics deals with optimizing the user/device interface. It seeks to strike the right balance between energy expended and work done. 3DConnexion has always said that it strives to produce devices that are easy to operate and that make modeling easier. For the most part, they have succeeded admirably. A couple of years ago, I reviewed the Logitech Magellan SpaceMouse and listened to the manufacturer talk about the solid ergonomics of its flat puck vs. the ball of its then-rival, the SpaceBall. Astronauts had reported that the ball was uncomfortable. I looked at how the puck forced the user's hand into a flat, almost horizontal position that I knew, from long experience with typewriter keyboards, would fatigue the wrist. The Spaceball's greater height allowed users to turn their wrists to a more-comfortable position. I suppose things could be different in zero gravity.

    Next time in Cadalyst
Next time in Cadalyst

The new SpacePilot, you may have noticed, does not have a ball. But it's not really a puck, either. It sits up higher than the puck, almost as high as the Spaceball. It's much better ergonomically than the puck. If I have to lose the ball, this design is a good compromise.

Final Word

I like the SpacePilot. I think it could be improved, but it's much better than software control of your models. Every 3D modeler provides some way to rotate the model on your screen. Some use software icons you click on, some use the arrow keys, and some even let you click and drag with the middle mouse button (if you have one). No method is as intuitive as the SpacePilot. With it, you just grab and go. It doesn't get any easier.

Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an independent designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.

About the Author: IDSA

About the Author: Mike Hudspeth

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