One of my readers sent me a note one day and asked if I had tried 3Dconnexion’s SpaceNavigator. He sang enough praises that I decided to give it a try. Now there are at least two of us singing its praises.

SpaceNavigator Sits To The Left Of My Keyboard - I Am Right Handed The SpaceNavigator is essentially a joy stick similar to what you may find in the cockpit of a fighter plane. However, instead of three degrees-of-freedom (pitch, roll & yaw), it has six degrees-of-freedom interfaced to six sensors. In essence it allows you to zoom in or out, pan right or left, pan up or down, spin, tilt and roll. Of course, in practice, all six of these are combined to provide fluid and smooth control of your 3D workspace. The really nice part of the SpaceNavigator is that it allows you to do this with your free hand (left if you are right handed and right if you are left handed), while still maintaining complete use of the mouse.

For those of you who do not care to read the details of my review, I will summarize it up front, including a test drive video. However, I encourage you to read the entire review, especially if you find the SpaceNavigator interesting.


After a few hours trying to understand this device and a few more practicing with it, I have come to the conclusion that it is a must for improving the efficiency of drawing. It gives me an additional, much needed, hand and more control over my model as I draw. As mentioned, the SpaceNavigator is much smoother than the mouse, comfortable in your hand and has a very natural control feel. It does have a learning curve that you need to get through but the effort spent is well worth it. The price is quite reasonable and the quality seems superb. I give this the old Siskel & Ebert two thumbs up. And, oh yeah, I can get rid of that old hard drive I have been keeping on my desk as a paper weight; this device is heavy.

I do have a few complaints and some wishes. The menu is a little clumsy. For example, Center of Rotation is grayed out unless other tools are deselected, forcing you to use the menu and toolbar to do what should require only the toolbar. The Help button on the toolbar is a waste since you only need it while learning the device. The Disable Rolling tool has questionable value in my opinion; I would get rid of its toolbar icon too. That frees up two icons which could be replaced with Auto Center of Rotation and Center of Rotation on Selection buttons. I would change the behavior of the three rotation tools such that whichever is selective is active and the other two are not.

Lastly, to quote MLK, “I have a dream”. Devices such as the SpaceNavigator, which have SketchUp specific drivers (or SketchUp specific modules within a driver), ought to expose all device hooks to the SketchUp Ruby API. This would allow users to: select which configuration of degrees-of-freedom they wish to use for different uses via a toolbar icon; adjust the speed either discretely or dynamically; customize the toolbar; and put the menu under any top menu they desire. I suspect this is easy to do from and engineering standpoint and it would motivate the SketchUp Ruby community to write all sorts of enhancements for this device.

But, as I said, Two Thumbs Up . I really like this device!

A Video Tour Of A Hutch

I have a model I used for this purpose. It’s a Six Pane Oak Hutch which you can download for practice if you like. In this video I have the SpaceNavigator set up to simulate Orbit, Pan & Zoom tools – all in one left hand operated mouse. My right hand mouse is free for other purposes such as selecting and using the Center of Rotation tool (this requires that Auto Center of Rotation and Center of Rotation on Selection be de-selected). The feel of the SpaceNavigator is comfortable and natural. I strive to make deliberate and gentle movements. Click on the video to see how I do.

My Review In Detail

Let’s start at the beginning. When the SpaceNavigator arrived and I opened the package, I had three first impressions (there’s an oxymoron there somewhere). First, it was well packaged, encased tightly in a plastic container which in turn held it tightly in its box. Second, it is heavy and well built. And third, the fit and finish are high quality. It is designed to stay in place on your work surface. The SpaceNavigator is small, which takes up little of your precious workspace.

The SpaceNavigator comes with a self-starting CD which includes the necessary software and documentation. However, I recommend that instead of using the CD in the package you download the most recent driver from 3DConnexion. It’s likely that the driver on your CD is not the most recent and doing this will save you an unnecessary install. The driver is about 70 MB, so download may take a while if you don’t have broadband service.

Device Configuration Tab In Control Panel Plug the SpaceNavigator’s USB connector in. After downloading the driver to a folder of your choice, click on the self extracting file and follow the instructions. You will be shown a quick video tour  to familiarize you with SpaceNavigator’s controls. Spend some time with the video, but in the end, only using SpaceNavigator will teach you its capabilities.

An 3Dconnexion Control Panel icon will likely be placed on your desktop or in your system tray or task bar.  Open it. If no other application is open the drop down box at the top will indicate “Any Application”. Now open SketchUp and the drop down box indicates SketchUp, meaning that the driver and plugins exist to interface the SpaceNavigator to SketchUp. Any changes you make in the configuration can be saved as SketchUp specific.

App Configuration Tab In Control Panel The Control Panel has four tabs. Select each one, one at a time and familiarize yourself with them. There is a Help file under the Help menu to explain the controls. On the Device Configuration tab you can choose the degree-of-freedom motion you assign to  Zoom In/Out from a choice of two degrees-of-freedom. Pan Up/Down will be assigned the other. You can also set the overall speed (sensitivity) of the device. I suggest you slow the speed down if you are a new user.

On the App Configuration tab you can restrict the SpaceNavigator to just Tilt, Spin and Roll by deselecting the Pan/Zoom check box, or alternatively, restrict it to Pan and Zoom by deselecting the Tilt/Spin/Roll check box. You can not deselect (uncheck) both at the same time but you can enable both, and that is the default case.

Button Configuration Tab In Control Panel Checking the Dominant check box will restrict movement to one degree-of-freedom at a time, the one that the user inputs the most pressure. This may be helpful to the novice. The default case is unchecked.

The Reverse All Axes button reverses the behavior for each degree-of-freedom. However, this is probably better controlled on an individual basis in the Advanced Tab.

The SpaceNavigator has two buttons on the side which can be assigned to any number of commands including custom macros. This is done in the Button Configuration tab. I have assigned my left button to “Zoom Extents” and my right button to open the 3Dconnexion Control Panel. The left button “Zoom Extents” is very useful, especially for beginners who often lose their model off screen.

Advanced Settings Tab In Control Panel The advanced tab allows you to individually configure each degree-of-freedom. The choices are active-or-not via check boxes, speed and reversed-or-not via check boxes. You will spend a lot of time in this tab, configuring and re-configuring the active degrees-of-freedom, which is why I assigned the right button to it.

The SpaceNavigator also places a sub-menu on the Plugins menu called 3DxSketchUp. See picture below left. Under it are Auto Center of Rotation, Center of Rotation on Selection, Camera Mode, Center of Rotation, Disable Rolling, Toggle Toolbar and Help. Right off the bat I am going to suggest that woodworkers ignore Camera Mode and always leave it unchecked. I’ll explain in a moment. Check Toggle Toolbar to make the SpaceNavigator toolbar is visible. This is a redundant command in that it is the same as checking 3DxSketchUp under the View/Toolbars menu.

SpaceNavigator Sub-Menu Under PluginsThe SpaceNavigator operates in two modes: Camera mode when selected via the toolbar or 3DxSketchUp menu, or Object mode when not in Camera mode. In Camera mode the viewing scene will respond to what the camera sees as it zooms, pans, tilts, rotates or rolls. In other words it is like holding a camera, looking through the view finder, and moving the camera or zooming the lens. This mode is not very useful to the furniture designer. If you are an architect or landscaper it is very useful. I recommend leaving Camera mode deselected and operating in Object mode.

SpaceNavigation Toolbar & IconsIn Object mode, the model responds to the SpaceNavigator input and the Camera remains fixed. In other words we tilt, spin, roll, or otherwise move the object and what we see in the view is what the Camera would see. For example, imagine what a camera sees when mounted on a tripod and focused on a person dancing while move closer or away from the camera. This is how a furniture designer would naturally manipulate a model.

When in Object mode there are three choices for how the model responds to spin, tilt and roll: Auto Center of Rotation, Center of Rotation on Selection or Center of Rotation.

In Auto Center of Rotation mode the SpaceNavigator driver (software) analyzes the point-of-interest on the model and chooses the optimal center of rotation around which spin, roll or tilt will then occur. If you change the scene by zooming in or out, or change the viewing angle, the point-of-interest will change and hence the point of rotation. So each use of the SpaceNavigator could operate from a different point of rotation allowing for relatively easy loss of control if you are not an experienced user.

Center of Rotation on Selection allows you more control. What you do in this mode is select an object(s), group(s), or component(s) and the driver will find its center of volume to determine a point of rotation. When you deselect the object(s), group(s), or component(s) the point of rotation reverts to the center of volume of the entire model.

Center of Rotation allows the most control. This option will be grayed out on both the toolbar and the menu if either Auto Center of Rotation or Center of Rotation on Selection is chosen. Choosing Center of Rotation produces a magenta dot or X as you hover over the model. Click to choose a single point of rotation. This will essentially pin the selected model’s 3D point to a 2D display point of rotation and will ensure you don’t lose the model off screen – unless you pan it off. Center of Rotation is a good place for beginners to start.

Disable Rolling is a function that is a little difficult to understand. Being an engineer I needed to characterize this function to get a full understanding though not necessarily a full appreciation for it. Selecting it allows the driver to add intelligence to the SpaceNavigator control, presumably by throttling its sensitivity to certain degrees-of-freedom as the view changes.

To understand it I created a simple SketchUp model; a cube aligned with the axis and with one corner at the origin. I colored each side the color of the axis normal to it i.e. red, green and blue. Under the Advanced Settings tab in the Control Panel I chose Tilt, Spin and Roll one at a time with all Pan and Zoom check boxes de-selected. With Parallel Projection selected and for each selection of Tilt, Spin and Roll I chose Front view and observed how the SpaceNavigator responded. Next I chose the Side view and did the same. Next Top view and finally ISO view. I recorded my finding and then repeated the whole process with Disable Rolling enabled. Here are the results.

Rolling ISO Front Side Top
Tilt (H) R (H) G (H) R (H)
Spin (O) (V) B (V) B (V) G (V)
Roll (O) (N) G (N) R (N) B (N)


Let me define my nomenclature. R, G and B indicate the axis of rotation. H indicates a horizontal line across the 2D display as the axis if rotation. O indicates the origin as the point of rotation. And N indicates an axis normal to the screen as the axis of rotation. R(H) for example means the axis of rotation was the red axis which also happened to be the horizontal line in the 2D display. ISO was a view achieved by first selecting front and then ISO. Note this is different from say, Back and then ISO. So be aware I didn’t characterize all views necessarily.

Notice that Tilt always occurred around the horizontal axis no matter the view. Spin on the other hand occurred around the vertical axis in all views but ISO. In ISO view the blue axis started out vertical, but as I began the Spin the axis tilted about 30 degrees and then rotation was about the origin and vertical axis. This indicates something about how the engineers implemented the code but I am not sure of the intension yet.

Roll occurred in the axis normal to the screen in all cases. In the ISO case none of the major axes were normal to the screen and the point of rotation was the origin.

Notice the only “odd” behavior is the Spin condition in the ISO view, where the driver tilted the blue axis.

Next I checked Disable Rolling in the 3DxSketchUp menu (or on the toolbar) and repeated everything obtaining the following results.

No Rolling ISO Front Side Top
Tilt (H) R (H) G (H) R (H)
Spin (O) (V) B (V) B (V)
Roll (B) (V) B (N)


There are four noticeable changes here. In the Spin/Top case Disable Rolling disables spinning around the green vertical axis. In the Roll/ISO case Disable Rolling switches to rolling around the blue vertical axis versus the normal origin axes. In both the Roll/Front and Roll/Side case rolling was disabled.

To understand a possible intention on the designer’s part with the Disable Rolling function you need to realize that in normal situations all six degrees-of-freedom are enabled and the view is likely to be an analog combination of Front, Side and Top. So as you operate the SpaceNavigator what you are doing is smoothly changing from each of these boxes to another. I believe the designers, in an effort to favor movement in the horizontal and vertical axes and the front and side views (which is our normal viewing range), desensitized roll or spin around the blue axis with this function. This is just a guess on my part.

After many months of using SketchUp, I have become accustomed to the Orbit and Zoom tools in SketchUp for manipulating a model. It does a very good job, though a little choppy, especially when creating videos. The wheel on my mouse is the Zoom function and the mouse itself is the Orbit function. The only problem is that the mouse is tied up manipulating the model and not available for tools at the same time. This means I need to switch tools frequently to both draw and manipulate the model.

Recognizing that the Orbit function is a combination of rotation around the horizontal and vertical screen axis, I can recreate this with the SpaceNavigator. I can also include Zoom, Pan Right/Left and Pan Up/Down, all in the same control. To do this I select all degrees-of-freedom and uncheck Disable Rolling. It helps to use Center of Rotation and pin the point of rotation near the center of your model. Now the mouse is free for other tools such as drawing. If you wish to create a video you have very smooth control of the model, and no cursor need be in the video.

As you are learning to manipulate the model with the SpaceNavigator set the speed to a slower position. Move the point of rotation frequently; keep it set to the point of interest in your view, using the Center of Rotation tool on the 3DxSketchUP toolbar.

You will discover there are a lot of combinations of settings on the Advanced Settings tab that are useful under various conditions. For example, when dimensioning a model it is often useful to zoom in very close to end points or intersections in order to ensure selecting the correct inference point. When doing this the model is so large that most of it is off screen. You can limit the SpaceNavigator to just a left/right pan degree-of-freedom (no zoom, tilt, roll or spin) and quickly find endpoints in image extremes without losing control of the model. This saves several tool selections when only using the mouse.

I will post a review of the SpacePilot PRO, SpaceNavigator’s biggest brother, in a few weeks. Stay tuned.

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