Saturday, April 14, 2007

SpaceNavigator Review - Real Value for VR Roaming

It has been couple of weeks since I bought my first virtual reality gear. I expected another interesting but useless gadget soon to be abandoned to the graveyard of past interests. True enough the clerk at shop greeted SpaceNavigator order with 'Oh you gonna buy one of those weirdo space buttons!'. Right... Well it was too late to back down. I bought my new toy with meager 60 EUR which I secretly considered real bargain compared to any other Virtual Reality hardware out there. The navigator weighted promisingly heavy on my palm...

At home the installation was smooth with no problems what so ever. First things first as they say. I went and downloaded Google Earth which is the demo tool in the marketing videos. I had some previous experience with Google Earth but it had seemed to be a bit unintuitive to use as familiar first person shooter controls (WASD + Mouse Look) were not available. You could zoom in and rotate the globe nicely enough but it did not feel like flying around. When I started Google Earth with my SpaceNavigator I did not know what to expect. First experience was that I could really fast get good grip about how to rotate around and move. The only problem was that the actual movement was frustratingly slow. I went to SpaceNavigator Control Panel and changed the overall speed to maximum. Even with highest speed setting Space Navigator provided excellent accuracy in all axes. Immediately I understood what SpaceNavigator and Google Earth where about. I finally felt in control of my orientation and place in the virtual environment. I had to find some legendary mountain ranges and fly in the canyons. Google Earths beautiful on demand data loading caused some delays and for some reason Google Earth hanged on my computer regularly after certain amount of roaming around. Despite these small but irritating problems I felt like babbling about SpaceNavigator to anybody wishing to listen.

Another major application for SpaceNavigator would be different modeling tools. I figured to try it on Google SketchUp as it is free and easy to use. SpaceNavigator started to work with it immediately, though I had to change the speed from the control panel back to the lowest setting. Even then the overall feeling of the SpaceNavigator with SketchUp left me with nagging suspicion that there was something wrong with the rotations and that the relative speed between rotation and translation was not tuned properly. While only rotating the scene it seemed to regularly translate to some direction or another rendering the rotational functionality around Y-axis pretty much useless. It is possible that I did not really know how to use SpaceNavigator with SketchUp as I am not very familiar with modeling and the tools related.

After these mind altering experiments I finally admitted to myself what was the real application I had subconsciously intended the SpaceNavigator for. I started to look for the SpaceNavigator in the joysticks section. I am playing several 3d games with joystick support and most pressing need is in the bf2142 vehicle flying section as my joystick is big and clunky which tended to get me killed when I tried to switch to it from keyboard and mouse combination. Unfortunately there was no manufacturer provided joystick driver for SpaceNavigator so after some searching I found the following driver from the support site:

The joystick driver was slightly challenging to install and configure. One would recommend it for people with decent skills with drivers. After installation I got it running easily for bf2142 but for my disappointment the driver did not provide enough flexibility on how movement in given axis is mapped to the 360 degree scale of joy-axis. Due to this I could not really get maximal accelerations using the SpaceNavigator. I added an improved driver to my wish list.

All in all I would rank SpaceNavigator as a must have gadget for anyone with interest in 3D environments. The device seems to be of excellent quality, affordable and with improved drivers the possibilities are limitless. Cheers to 3Dconnexion.