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From CAD User Mechanical Magazine Vol 16 No 08 - AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2003
David Chadwick gets his hands on the Space Traveller. Not ET, but a high performance motion controller for the designer
I suppose the nearest you can come to the sensation of using the Space Traveller is by peeling a large potato. It's a subconscious operation. You hold the potato in your left hand, whilst your right wields the peeler. Without even thinking about it, the potato is rotated through all degrees of freedom to present the next unpeeled section of its surface to the knife, which, subsequently, requires a simplified slicing action in one direction to remove the peel. Try peeling a potato whilst holding the left hand immobile. That is precisely the kind of freedom with which the Space Traveller endows the designer. I was rather sceptical at first - not so much sceptical as unimpressed, expecting a period of awkward manoeuvring from my untutored left hand, and uncertain of the benefits of two-handed control of a model.
I was wrong. Perhaps many years at the kitchen sink had honed my bilateral co-ordination, which skill I was able to transfer to the new tool, and there was no doubt that I was rapidly in control of my left hand as much as I am of my right. Within seconds, I was pulling, pushing, rotating, panning - and otherwise juggling the large model I had on the screen in perfect co-ordination with my normal mouse, which, con-incidentally, had its work rate substantially reduced.
No longer did I have to visit the toolbar to select each function to pan, rotate or zoom into and out of the model. All of this was being done at speed with my left hand, and in such a fluid fashion that within a short space of time I was combining functions with a natural elegance and minimum of effort.
AND THERE’S MORE-
BUT FIRST, THE GOODS!
The goods are the range of high performance motion controllers developed by 3D Connexions - SpaceMouse, SpaceBall 5000 - and now the Space Traveller, designed for the laptop PC or Workstation owner who wants to move on the move. The SpaceBall uses an opto-mechanical sensing device that fits, snugly, in the pal m of the hand, and which can be moved in any direction providing up to 6 degrees of freedom. Accompanying the physical controller are a series of function keys, used to duplicate any repetitive function in the application from a more accessible platform.
The Space Ball has been around for some time, with over 250,000 installed with users already. Space Traveller provides similar functionality, but in a size and format more suitable for the mobile computer, and with a puck, rather than ball shaped, controller.
First of all, its size is much reduced. Galling, really, if you’ve already minimised the size of your computer in order to find space for the relatively large SpaceBall! Space Traveller, in comparison, is no more than 1.8 inches in diameter, and 1.7 inches tall. It still provides the same amount of movement, but is held between forefinger and thumb.
Sensitivity of control is, perhaps, greater than with the SpaceBall, and
quite delicate movements can be achieved, allowing much finer control
over editing. It is certainly far more sensitive than the standard mouse.
Secondly, its weight is surprisingly heavy, given its small size. It needs
the weight to provide a stable platform against the movement of the hand.
3D Connexions experimented during its development by placing steel washers
in the base, until they found the optimum weight for maximum efficiency.
Next, the function keys had to be reduced to accommodate the smaller dimensions of the controller. There are just eight function keys instead of the ten of the SpaceBall, but they will be more than adequate for most users.
The keys are arranged around the rim of the Space Traveller and are actually crystal illuminated in order to differentiate them. Design constraints prevented numbers being added, and some element of habitual use has to be undertaken to familiarise the user with the position of each function relative to the orientation of the controller, and the cable connecting it to the USB port.
FUNCTION KEY OPERATION
Now you can't just plug a multi-faceted bit of kit into your PC and expect it to work in the same way that your mouse would. Mice are simple things, and are expected to perform just a couple of tasks. Space Traveller, however, needs a bit more interaction with the computer - and, in particular, with the application that it intends to work with.
It needs, therefore, a bit of co-operation between 3D Connexions and the software developers to handle the additional commands that the peripheral device will be sending to the programme.
To date, over 100 leading software applications, most of them in the design world, naturally, have had plug-ins made to accept the devices, including Autodesk Inventor, SolidWorks, 3D Studio Max, Pro/Engineer, ANSYS, oldflow, EdgeCAM and others.
Office productivity applications that are supported include Microsoft
Project, Office (Word and Excel), Outlook Express and Internet Explorer.
3D Connexions can supply customers with the appropriate plug-ins on request,
or customers can download them from their website.
Once the utility has been installed the user can either use default function keys with the application, or modify the selection to suit his particular needs. This is simply done by adding functions from a complete list, using a dialogue box, and dropping them onto each numbered key.
In addition to this, different functions can be assigned to each key for different applications, taking advantage of the most favoured functions of each, and come into effect only when the application is active.
Space Traveller is a unique talented tool for the designer. It is also mighty useful for power spreadsheet users, editors and proofreaders. Microsoft's Word and Excel can use it, and so can Adobe's Acrobat 6.
Imagine being able to handle a large spreadsheet in the same way that you handle a complex assembly - panning and zooming at will (not rotating, yet!). The same two handed control gives the user far greater control and accessibility of the spreadsheet, moving effortlessly around the columns, and zooming in on a couple of cells, without constantly having to switch the mouse to the slider bar at the bottom of the screen.
3D Connexions are well aware of the abuse that laptop users inflict on their peripheral equipment - the battery chargers, etc., - heaving them into the laptop satchel after carefully stowing away the main item. Consequently the Space Traveller is supplied in a small, rigid, leather case to keep it clean and safe. Purchasers of the controller are also given a complementary mouse, both of them connecting to the laptop through a single USB port.
I Like it. Not only does the Space Traveller give the designer enhanced control of a 3D model, it also boosts his productivity, enabling him to speed through the development of the model with far more fluidity, eliminating much of the heavy workload of the normal mouse. So much so that the cost of the Space Traveller (around the £400 mark) can be recovered within a month through increased output of drawings and designs.
Sharing the effort between both hands has another positive benefit as well. It reduces the incidence of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injuries) which occurs in many people through overuse of the right hand and constant clicking of the mouse button.
And, finally, it's fun to use as well! CU
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