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Revit 2012 and the SpacePilot PRO
For two weeks, I tested this device in all possible Revit scenarios and I'd like to share with you my experience with it. I originally posted this article at clubrevit.com.
 
(Disclaimer: I am in no way connected to 3Dconnexion. I wasn't asked to write this review nor was I compensated for it.)
 
Will Revit users fly with this device?
 
The SpacePilot™ PRO _ a product review by Michael Anonuevo
 
One of the new features of Revit Architecture 2012 is its support for 3Dconnexion devices. As a Revit beta tester, I was aware of this feature before this version was released. However, prior commitments prevented me from taking a look into it until last month. Anyway, here are my findings:

The first thing I did was visit 3Dconnexion's website to learn about their products. In the internet, I read a lot of articles and reviews concerning their product line. Apparently, they have been around since 2001. Their products are popular in the manufacturing industry as navigation tools in CAD/CAM modeling and simulation applications. In the film industry, they are used for navigation and visualization with popular animation software such as Maya, Alias, Blender, etc. Although Autodesk is officially supporting 3Dconnexion's products, I couldn't find any information on how they are being used in Revit. A lot of product reviews by design engineers have affirmed their usefulness though. Nonetheless, I was a little bit skeptical. The regular mouse, after all, does a good job as a navigation tool in Revit. My thought then was to get hold of a unit and test it.

Not knowing anything about 3Dconnexion's navigation devices, I contacted them. I sent an email with my credentials and asked if I could evaluate and review their SpaceNavigator. Within a few days, I was contacted and informed that the company was sending me the SpacePilot PRO. This is 3Dconnexion's top of the line model.

For Revit Architecture 2012 users, this article is about my experience with the SpacePilot PRO in the two weeks that I put it to various tests. Aside from Revit, I also tested the device with Autodesk Inventor 2011, Photoshop CS5, and Google Earth. I've included a few photos and video clips to help you make a decision if you're contemplating on buying one. I will probably write a follow-up article after I use the device extensively for a few months.

Unpacking the Box

I was surprised when I received the SpacePilot PRO. The package was contained in a 15" x 13" x 7" carton mailing box! I'm like, how big could this mouse be? Well, after taking it out of its box, it was bigger than what I thought it would be! Take a look (see fig. 1):
 

Figure 1
 
You can see its size in relation to the mouse I use. Here is another photo showing it side by side with other mouse brands (see fig. 2).

Figure 2

I said to myself there was no way this will fit in my slide-out keyboard shelf. However, it actually did and I didn't have any problem pushing the shelf back underneath my computer table. Take a look at this clip:

My Initial Reaction to the SpacePilot PRO

After installing the driver and restarting my computer, the bottom part of the controller cap lit followed by the small screen (see fig. 3).

Figure 3
 
The LCD colored screen revealed a column of five icons. These are SpacePilot PRO-specific mini applications that are called 3Dconnexion applets. They consists of the following:

1. Function Keys
2. Outlook Mail
3. Outlook Calendar
4. Outlook Tasks
5. RSS Feeds

Before trying to find out what the screen items were all about, I first opened a Revit file. Without hesitation, I moved the controller cap, the round joystick-like part in the middle of the device. Wow! I was amazed by how quickly and smoothly my Revit model was moving as I pushed, pulled, and gyrated the controller cap. Impressive! The cap is pretty sensitive though, and there were a few times I got "lost in space". Looking at the SpacePilot PRO, however, I noticed a button called Fit. I instinctively pressed it and my model went back to the center of the screen. After a few more tests with families and projects, I proceeded to read the manual to find out about the rest of its features. In the next two weeks, I tried it with common modeling scenarios. In short, I tried to find out how it would be like if the regular mouse's middle button was disabled and I'm left with the SpacePilot PRO. Let me begin from the time I opened the box.

Packaging

Outside the white box container, 3Dconnexion labels this device as "The Ultimate Professional 3D Mouse". This is their high end and most expensive model that contains programmable buttons and a colored LCD screen. Inside the box, there is a manual, a CD and the SpacePilot PRO packaged in...hold your breath...that indestructible, molded, bullet-proof, clear plastic clamshell container that we all dread about! For a minute, I thought I was going to take out my power scissors and eye protective wear! But then I noticed that the bottom part of the plastic container had perforations which I was able to easily rip apart. Prying the resulting opening, the top half of the plastic unsnapped. Phew! You should have seen the smile on my face. 3Dconnexion got it right with packaging this product!

Anyway, I got that off my chest so let's examine the SpacePilot PRO closely...

Specifications

Here are the technical specifications:

• 3Dconnexion patented six-degrees-of-freedom sensor
• Color LCD Workflow Assistant
- Viewing area (WxH): 49.96mm x 37.72mm / 1.96" x 1.48"
- Resolution / color depth: 320x240 / 262,144
• Second Generation QuickView Navigation (32 standard views)
• 4 Navigation Setting Keys (Speed, Rotation, Pan/Zoom, Dominant)
• 5 dual-function Intelligent Function Keys (access to 10 commands)
• Keyboard Modifiers (Ctrl, Alt, Shift, Esc)
• 21 programmable keys in total (access to 31 commands)
• Full size advanced wrist rest design
• Dimensions (LxWxH): 231mm x 150mm x 58mm / 9.1" x 5.9" x 2.3"
• Weight: 880g / 1.94lb

The SpacePilot PRO is a USB device that runs on the following platforms:

• PC (Windows XP and all editions of Windows Vista and Windows 7)
• Linux (Redhat Enterprise WS 4, SuSE Linux 9.3)
• Sun Solaris 8 & 10 (x64)

The SpacePilot PRO was designed as a navigation device and not as a replacement for your mouse. The suggested location is to place it on the opposite side of the keyboard from where your mouse is located. This is exactly what I did as you saw in the first video clip. It has a nice ergonomic shape with an overall black finish (see fig. 4). The middle strip that extends to the bottom area where your wrist would rest has a soft rubberized-like material. It's comfortable and sculpted to conform to the shape of the hand as you're holding the controller cap.

Figure 4

The bottom part has six rubber feet which prevents the device from being moved as you maneuver the controller cap (see fig. 5).

Figure 5

3Dconnexion patented Six degrees of freedom sensor

This is 3Dconnexion's micro precision technology that gives you the ability to move a model in all directions. The sensor is apparent on the controller cap, the protruding round cylinder in the middle of the device. By holding the cap with your fingers, you can push, pull, twist, lift, tilt or press it down to rotate, zoom and pan. Here's an image showing the possible direction maneuvers and the default functions assigned to them (see fig. 6):

Figure 6

The controller cap is pretty sensitive. It's easy to stray from a direction if you don't pay attention to how you're moving your fingers. However, the 3DxWare software that came with the SpacePilot PRO allows you to adjust the navigation speed of the individual axes. You can also reverse the direction of these axes or apply an overall speed (see fig. 7).

Figure 7

The Controller Cap

In the first few days of using the SpacePilot PRO, I experimented on how to move the cap efficiently. I tried different speed settings and noted how they affected navigation.

Here are a few things I observed and discovered:

The way you hold the cap and how you position your fingers affect the movement of your model. The controller cap requires only a light touch. There are four vertical orientation ridges around the cap's curved side perimeter (see fig. 8).

Figure 8

Your middle finger and thumb would be resting on top of the left and right ridges. They help you move the cap in the direction you're maneuvering it to. They also act as a good grip that you can feel. Your index finger would be resting on the top edge of the cap (closest to the LCD screen) while your fourth finger can either be just below the middle finger or suspended with the pinky (the little finger). You can also anchor your pinky on the body's edge.

Moving the cap forward, backward and sideways is pretty easy and can be done with just the middle finger and thumb. The same thing with pulling it up or pressing it down. To tilt the cap forward, you simply press the top perimeter of the cap with your index finger. To tilt it backward, you can hook the top perimeter of the cap towards you with your index finger. You can also choose to use your thumb to press the bottom perimeter of the cap. You'll have to experiment to find out what works best for you.

As far as the placement of the unit on my slide-out keyboard shelf, I ended up positioning it about 15 degrees tilted to the right (see fig. 9).

Figure 9

This seems to work best for me and this is the reason why: If you look at the top of your left hand in front of you and pretend you're holding the cap, you'll notice a C-shape is formed. The middle finger is farther forward, away from the thumb. Based on this position, I rotated the unit slightly to the right so that the cap's left and right ridges coincide with my middle finger and thumb. This way, I'm able to move the cap forward and backward more naturally.

To help you further control your movements, there are three navigation button keys on the right side of the controller cap (see fig. 10)

Figure 10

Basically, they are toggle switches that turns On or Off certain navigation axis. For example, if you just want to pan and zoom, you can disable the rotate motion. These functions can also be accessed from the App Configuration tab in the 3Dconnexion Properties dialog box (see fig. 11)

Figure 11

There is a LED blue light emanating from the base of the cap. You can turn it off anytime by clearing the check mark from the Enable LEDs option (3DxWare>3Dconnexion Properties>Tools) as shown in Figure 12.

Figure 12

The Programmable Buttons

The awesome thing about these buttons is that you can program them to activate any keyboard shortcut in Revit. Most of our default keyboard shortcuts contain two characters. These shortcuts can be associated with a button for a one click access to our favorite tools and commands. After you memorize where certain buttons are located, you don't even have to look at the SpacePilot PROs buttons to activate a tool. The two cluster of buttons at the left and right sides of the device have raised middle buttons (see fig. 13).

Figure 13

You can distinctively feel them while you're looking at the screen. For example, if you are in a close-up view and you want to get out of it right away, you simply press the Home button with your thumb. This is the default command assigned to the raised middle button of the right cluster (labeled ISO1). It's the equivalent of clicking our drawing area's Home icon with the mouse. Knowing where the raised buttons are, you can then feel the location of the surrounding buttons. Even if you have to look at the pad to click a button, it's still one click faster. With the keyboard, you have to look down and type two characters. Of course, you still need the keyboard to enter text and numbers.

The five buttons on each side have dual functions. When you press a button quickly, it activates a command. If you press and hold it down for a second, it activates a second command. So that gives you a total of twenty commands at your fingertips. The rest of the buttons are also programmable.

Assigning a Revit command in SpacePilot PRO is easy. First, make sure you have assigned your keyboard shortcuts in Revit (Views>Windows>Keyboard Shortcuts or just type KS). Open 3DxWare and click Custom Functions (see 1 fig. 14).

Figure 14

This takes you to the Custom Functions dialog box (see 2, fig. 14). Clicking New will bring out the User Macro Editor dialog box (see 3, fig. 14). In the Macro Name, type a name for the command (I'll use Trim as an example). Inside the User Macro box, type the Revit keyboard shortcut (I'll use TR as an example). Click Save. Click Done in the Custom Functions dialog box. Back in the 3Dconnexion Properties dialog box, the name of the keyboard shortcut you just added (Trim) will be available from all the drop-down lists. Next, choose a button where you want to assign this command then slide down to Trim. Click OK (see fig. 15).

Figure 15

In this case, I assigned it to Button 1. Now my next problem is memorizing which tools are associated with the buttons. Fortunately, the LCD screen has a function that displays a layout with the Key assignments. And speaking of Macros, you can assign a string of macros. Yes, you can configure two or three Revit commands and sequentially activate them with a click of a button!

The SpacePilot PRO loads the appropriate default buttons for the software it supports. Here is what they configured for Revit (see fig. 16):

Figure 16

In Autodesk Inventor Professional 2011, the button configuration is an add-in called Customize Buttons accessed from the Add-Ins tab. You simply choose a Category then choose an item from the Commands box. You then drag this command to a button box (see. fig. 17).

Figure 17

Finally, you can save your custom button configuration from the Options menu>Save As (3DxWare>3Dconnexion Properties).

The LCD screen
 
3Dconnexion calls the colored LCD screen: LCD Workflow Assistant. The default mini applications displayed here consists of MS Outlook email, calendar, tasks and RSS feeds. Outlook has to be opened in order for you to see your emails displayed on this screen. I did try it and it worked fine. However, I use two 24" monitors so I really have no use for this functionality since my other programs are open in my second monitor. For users with one monitor, this would be a welcome addition. You can turn off the screen anytime by pressing the top right button of the device. What I found the LCD screen useful for is having the key assignments displayed as I'm trying to memorize where my tools are.

Revit Projects and the SpacePilot PRO

I tested the SpacePilot PRO with the two sample projects that came with Autodesk Revit Architecture 2012 software namely:

• rac_basic_sample_project.rvt
• rac_advanced_sample_project.rvt

Take a look at this two movie clips:

The Revit Family Editor and the SpacePilot PRO

The SpacePilot PRO excelled well in the family modeling environment. I found it very useful in the type of families I specialize in. Being able to move a family in object mode is such a neat experience. Take a look at these two short video clips:

Autodesk Inventor Professional 2011 and the SpacePilot PRO

For Inventor users, this device is a must. This video clip will show you how the SpacePro can be maneuvered to visualize a model:

Photoshop CS5 and the SpacePilot PRO

I didn't have time to configure the buttons for Photoshop CS5. However, the SpacePilot PRO's zoom function is automatically applied to the magnifying glass. You are spared from the pain of switching tools in order to zoom or pan an image while editing it. Here's a short video clip:

Google Earth and the SpacePilot PRO

You just have to watch this video clip!

Upcoming Software Release

In reading forums and articles pertaining to 3Dconnexion, I noticed discussions on how users are configuring their devices for their internet browsers, MS word, Excel, etc. I went back to my 3DxWare software to see if I missed some options. I couldn't find any setting for the applications they were talking about. Then I went to 3Dconnexion website and found a page called 3D Mouse Anywhere. Well, I was surprised to find out that there is a new driver coming out that supports any application! It's called 3DxWare 10.

Unfortunately, the driver is still in beta version. 3Dconnexion is not supporting it but users are encouraged to download and test its functionality. I called the company's technical support to get some information but was told that I have to post my questions in their Developer's Forum. I skipped that and just decided to download the beta. In doing so, I was prompted to uninstall the version I'm currently using. I did and I was in for a treat! Yes, this new driver supports the applications I tested it with. I was able to use the SpacePilot PRO to scroll pages in my browser (Chrome), MS word, MS Excel and Acrobat. You can also zoom in and out of images from PDFs. The software has a new interface that allows you to configure customized button settings for every application you use. I did noticed a few things not working_ but then again, it's a beta. So that's that. I uninstalled it and reinstalled the current driver.

Anyway, this new version could be released anytime now. So on top of the advantages it adds to Revit, the upcoming 3DxWare 10 software can be used for your other miscellaneous applications. Here is a summary of what it promises to support (in addition to the hundreds of software being supported right now):

• Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Power, Outlook, etc)
• Games that use a joystick or gamepad
• Media Players (adjusting volume, forward, rewind, track selection)
• Internet browsers
• 3D Collaboration: multiple navigation devices can be used in one workstation. This allows more than one person to manipulate a model during design reviews or client presentations.

Pricing

Before I contacted 3Dconnexion, the price of the SpacePilot PRO was $499.00. When I received the device, however, the price had gone down to $399.00. Amazon.com is selling it for $362.99. If you are a qualified student, you can get it from educational resellers for $250.00. If I can get hold of any other 3Dconnexion devices for testing, I'll post a review for your benefit.

Conclusion

Using the SpacePilot PRO is quite an experience. You will be engaging the device together with your regular mouse. In the beginning, I had the tendency to use the middle wheel of the regular mouse for zooming, although my left hand was already on top of the SpacePilot PRO. I guess it's from years of using the mouse wheel. I have to make a conscious effort to remember to use it all the time. After a week, I actually long to use it whenever I can. There are so many maneuvers you just can't do with the wheel/shift key combination or even with the ViewCube. It's obvious that this is a great tool for presentations. Then there is the increase in productivity with the use of the programmable buttons. Aside from these advantages, your index finger won't get sore anymore!

So there you go. My advice for you is to find a local reseller where you can test the device. Other than that, I believe 3D navigation devices such as the SpacePilot PRO will be the next standard peripheral in the BIM and AEC industry.

In answer to my Title question, it's a resounding YES!

3Dconnexion's website: http://www3Dconnexion.com/
(Special thanks to Ms. Mei Antonio for sending me the SpacePilot PRO)