Poetry in motion

After the SpaceBall, 3D motion control and productivity moves up a gear with the introduction of the SpacePilot and the so-called ‘intelligent two-handed interface’. Charles Clarke reviews it.

One of the badges of office of the ‘power’ CAD user in the late 1990s was the SpaceBall, or 3D motion controller — a hi-tech joystick-like device on the opposite side of the keyboard to the mouse.

At the time these devices separated the professional from the amateur, the rationale being that two hands are quicker than one. In the ‘one-handed world’ the mouse does everything except type alphanumerics and issue keyboard shortcuts.

Operations such as panning, zooming, selecting and picking menu commands all fall to the mouse, which involves multiple trips to the menu bar to select icons and pop down menus.

Even with systems that have right-mouse click- context sensitive swapping between functions, valuable time can be lost. So the SpaceBall, with its ‘alwayson’ motion control increased design productivity time by 30 per cent with 50 per cent less mouse usage.

There was also an option to control other operations with function keys and initiate macros if you could be bothered to program them.

Apart from the convenience of direct access to the motion of the model on the screen, the SpaceBall also allowed the user to control its motion in an intuitive way as if the model was being held in the hand. One of the problems with mouse motion control is that the centre of rotation change is relative to where you place the cursor ‘rotate’ button. All this excessive mouse motion disappears with a 3D motion controller. So not only is user interaction with the model much more direct, but it’s also a less frustrating and more rewarding experience.

Now 3D motion control has moved up a gear with the introduction of the SpacePilot from 3D Connexion and the so-called ‘intelligent two-handed interface’. According to the marketing blurb, the SpacePilot is an intelligent controller that responds to your needs.

‘Adaptive sensing technology’ delivers the functions you want the instant you want them. This means that the controller senses where you are in your application and it presents the commands available in that context to the LCD on the SpacePilot, which you can then access with the 21 speed keys on the device.

These commands update dynamically when you switch applications or tackle different work modes within an application. Whether you’re doing part modelling, assembly, analysis or animation, the SpacePilot reacts with the appropriate functions available in that context.

These function keys are extendable and programmable so that you can customise and/or extend the standard offerings. It’s a way of extending the application’s GUI (graphic user interface) to the desktop, allowing you to interact much more effectively with the crowded and often cumbersome and inadequate Windows user interface common in today’s sophisticated technical applications.

All the SpaceBall’s motion control facilities are available on the new more sensitive hockey puck controller. Plus there are keys to adjust motion sensitivity or restrict the motion to just one axis at a time (with the Dom key). The ‘Fit’ key allows you to quickly size your model or scene to the centre of the screen.

You can zoom in to work on a part, then quickly zoom out for a look at the whole design. The ‘Modifier Keys’ give you access to the same Esc, Shift, Ctrl, and Alt functions as a normal keyboard and they are readily accessible on the SpacePilot without removing your hand from the control cap.

‘View’ keys provide rapid access to the standard views of your model with the T (Top), R (Right), F (Front) and L (Left) keys. You can also disengage the 3D View Lock mode for working in 2D for quick pan and zoom functions.

There are real productivity benefits to having these functions so directly available.

3D Connexion has preprogrammed commands for over 120 popular applications, so you just plug the device into a USB port and you’re ready. But this kind of device is not for everyone. If you’re a competent three button mouse user there’s no real motivation to go to an old-style SpaceBall device just for motion control.

And if you’re a mobile user like Jeremy Hines, senior application specialist for SolidWorks, it’s just another piece of kit to carry.

‘To use a 3D motion controller properly you have to take the time to learn how to use it and set it up with the software,’ said Hines. ‘They seem to be more valuable for casual users or for power users who use the software eight hours a day. For those of us in between like me, who are quite proficient using the mouse, the motivation to use one of these devices is not that strong.’

‘Also having the ability to set up function keys and run macros is more useful for some of the older CAD systems that have many extra or external functions with a command bar to link them in,’ said Hines.

‘The reality is that I don’t sit and use a CAD system for eight hours a day, every day — if I did it would probably be worth spending the time to learn to use it. When someone is skilled at using a SpaceBall you can see the difference in the way they manipulate or interact with the model,’ said Hines.

Now that mid-range 3D CAD is more popular than ever, 3D motion control should be available to every CAD user rather than remain the preserve of the dedicated CAD operator. It’s an additional expense, but at about £350 it’s a real productivity boost for minimum outlay — especially when context-sensitive functions come pre-programmed.