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When Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse in the mid-1960s, its ability to point and click helped pave the way for the personal computer’s ubiquitous 2D graphical user interface. Now, more than 40 years later, 3D virtual worlds and 3D development have become popular. But the mouse—designed for 2D interaction—is often insufficient for traversing virtual 3D environments. For 3D navigation, it’s time to usher in a 3D mouse, such as the SpaceNavigator for Notebooks, which lets you move horizontally, vertically, and in a third dimension of depth within your 3D space. The SpaceNavigator for Notebooks ($109; available on Amazon) is a smaller, lighter version of 3Dconnexion’s SpaceNavigator ($109; available on Amazon).
The sturdy SpaceNavigator for Notebooks has a black 3D controller knob with matte plastic sides that sits atop a metal base containing two mouse buttons. The bottom has a rubber ring to help prevent it from sliding. The device’s weight (8.9 ounces) also helps keep it in place; pick up the SpaceNavigator, and not only does it feel hefty, but also comfortable and strong.
Once the driver is installed, a 3Dconnexion icon appears in the Other section of OS X’s System Preferences. Click on the icon to configure the device settings. There’s also the very helpful Configuration Wizard, along with demos and animated tutorials to get you started.
Take advantage of the included teaching tools, because it takes practice to learn the SpaceNavigator’s nuances. Pushing and pulling the knob up or down zooms in and out; nudging makes you pan in the direction you want to go; twisting rotates the on-screen object; and tilting tilts the plane that you’re exploring. The SpaceNavigator is an ideal input device for 3D space because you can combine these movements for quick action. For example, you can zoom and pan at the same time by pushing in the knob and simultaneously nudging in the direction you want to pan.
At first, I found it a bit difficult to not combine movements; for example, I had a tendency to zoom and pan when I just wanted to pan. It took me a couple of days to recognize how the knob works and to understand the distinct hand movements required to move the knob to the desired location. But after I figured it all out, I found the SpaceNavigator drastically more efficient in moving through 3D environments than repeatedly clicking and dragging with a mouse or using on-screen navigation controls.
The major drawback to the SpaceNavigator is its limited software compatibility. It works with only 16 Mac programs: Acrobat Reader, ArchiCAD, Maya, Blender, Fledermaus, form-Z, Geophoto, Google Earth, Google SketchUp, Photoshop CS2, Photoshop CS3 Extended, Poser, QuickTime Player (with QuickTime VR files), Second Life, TurboSketch, and VectorWorks. There’s a driver software development kit available for download if you have the knowledge and know-how to create drivers for your software.
3Dconnexion’s parent company, Logitech, makes the NuLooq navigator and tooldial, which looks like a 3D mouse, but isn’t. The NuLooq isn’t as much a navigational device as a software launch pad that, used in conjunction with the NuLooq tooldial, makes it faster to access tools and menus in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign. The NuLooq doesn’t support any 3D Mac applications, though it can be used to zoom, scroll, and pan in Microsoft Office, iMovie, and Final Cut Pro.
The SpaceNavigator for Notebooks isn’t meant to replace your mouse; it’s specifically for moving through 3D programs. And even if you use just one of the 16 compatible programs on a daily basis, the device will help you regain some of the sanity lost from trying to fit a 2D input device into a 3D workspace. After a bit of practice, you’ll float though the air with the greatest of ease, instead of laboring with a never-ending series of clicks and drags or inadequate on-screen controls.