Price: 375 . 375 . 399
Pros: Potentially alleviates RSI in the left hand by spreading work over both hands. Comfortable to use.
Cons: No real benefit in terms of speed or efficiency when working in Maya, Max or Cinema 4D. No OS X support yet.
It's no surprise that Logitech, the manufacturer behind some of the finest input-devices available, owns 3Dconnexion, the company behind the SpaceBall line of motion controllers. These devices have been available for years for CAD users, but only recently has 3Dconnexion released drivers and plug-ins that allow them to work with entertainment-focused applications such as 3DS Max, Maya, Softimage|XSI, and Photoshop. The company offers three devices for use with such tools. They vary from the top-of-the-line SpaceBall 5000, the SpaceMouse Plus, and the portable SpaceBall Traveller.
The SpaceBall 5000 is a large device that sits on the left side of your desk. You operate it with your left hand, leaving your right hand for your mouse as normal. The concept of two-handed input is intended to save time and prevent RSI. The SpaceBall is used to control navigation and object movement while the right hand is left free to perform editing, animation, and other clicking. It’s a well-made piece of kit, featuring an integral rubberized wrist rest, and the body is subtly sculpted to make it ergonomically satisfying. The control itself is a large rubbery ball, not unlike a large, dense squash ball.
Even after long periods, it was a comfortable device to use. Flanking the ball are buttons that you operate with your fingers. These buttons perform tasks such as toggling translation and rotation, and increasing or decreasing sensitivity. On the outside there are two rows of buttons, a row of six and a row of three, while on the inside (the thumb side) there are just three. All the buttons are easy to access.
The SpaceMouse Plus is a slightly lesser device than the SpaceBall 5000, but some users may actually find its design preferable. Rather than a control ball there is a hard plastic bump, similar in shape to a flattened cylinder, but with contoured sides that allow for more grip when rotating the device. There are nine buttons in two rows in front of the control knob, and two more on either side. There is no wrist-rest, just a palm support, but it’s still quite an ergonomic design.
The best of the three devices, though, is the SpaceBall Traveller (below). This minimally-designed unit is small and weighty, and comes bundled with a matching Logitech optical mouse. The SpaceBall on the Traveller is tiny – about 6.5cm in diameter – and consists of a control knob resting on a solid turned steel base. This helps to keep the unit still as you use it. At first, it appears bereft of any buttons, but closer inspection reveals a ring of transparent plastic at the top of the steel base. This is divided into nine clickable buttons. It’s a good-looking piece of kit, and the supplied leather carrying cases add to the appeal.
All three units work using optical technology, making their operation as smooth as silk. Each offers full 3D navigation with six degrees of freedom, and the supplied software allows you to customize various parameters and save custom settings for different applications. The devices work in many CAD applications, as well as 3DS Max, Maya, XSI and Cinema 4D.
The method of working takes some getting used to. It’s easy at first to lose your bearings and have the camera tumble all over the place, and it’s tricky to set up the driver’s sensitivity to balance the pan, zoom, and rotate speeds. It gets easier with practice, but you can’t help wondering if the devices are actually benefiting the way you work. While you can use your right hand in addition to your left with these devices, you can’t use them simultaneously, so there’s no real benefit in terms of speed or workflow. You may find yourself giving up on the devices in the end, simply because it’s more intuitive, faster, and controllable to use keyboard modifiers and the mouse to navigate.
The true benefit of these controllers is that they enable you to divide up the work more evenly between right and left hands. This is clearly better for your health – RSI would be reduced if you switched to a full two-handed input set-up. For some, the struggle to adapt may be too much of a turn-off.