By Leslie Gordon, Senior Editor

Many of us who work with 3D applications find using only a mouse and a keyboard increasingly unsatisfactory. They take numerous clicks with frequent interruptions. And fluid on-screen movement leaves a lot to be desired. However, a 3D mouse eliminates these annoyances, making 3D work natural, effortless, and more fun. For instance, a strain gage inside the mouse monitors the position of the flexible control cap. A weighted base has two buttons that can be assigned different commands such as “Pan Only” or “Reset Tilt and North.”

A 3D mouse lets users design objects almost as if they were holding them in their hand. And use of one in a virtual world can make it seem as if, for instance, you are actually flying over the Golden Gate Bridge or walking around and through the Taj Mahal. The SpaceNavigator for Notebooks is small enough to slip into a laptop case and targets users who want their 3D to go.

I recently tried out the portable mouse in a few virtual worlds. Right away, I appreciated that the box the mouse comes in has colorful graphics on it that illustrate which way to push or twist the control cap to roll, pan, spin, tilt, or zoom a 3D object. The diagram helps new users such as myself get up to speed more rapidly. Also helpful: Quick Start booklets (for Windows, Macs, Unix, and Linux) clearly describe how to attach the device and install the software.

A configuration wizard runs during installation and includes animations of cap movement to show different model or image responses. The 3D mouse goes on the side of the keyboard opposite that of the regular mouse so both mice work in conjunction. The conventional mouse performs the usual tasks of selecting and scrolling.

To access a demo, double-click the 3Dconnexion Control Panel icon on the desktop and then select Tools > Demos from the main menu. I manipulated the control cap in a QuickTime demo there to fly under and around downhill skiers zooming through the air. It felt almost as if I were on the slope with them. The Control panel also lets users change the speed with which the mouse tilts, rotates, or pans views.

Aside from the demo, Google Earth is a good place to explore more of the mouse’s capabilities. This required downloading the application and checking settings such as 3D Buildings. Google Earth opens as if you are looking at the earth from far out in space. Pushing down on the mouse cap pans the view closer and closer to earth. I then navigated to San Francisco by pushing the cap down and to the side at the same time so the view moved towards the West. Tilting the cap then had me soaring under and over the Golden Gate Bridge.

The last test involved importing a model from the online SketchUp 3D Warehouse into SketchUp. Although not CAD, the software lets users build realistic-looking 3D objects and buildings. The program opens in Object mode. So moving, twisting, and tilting the mouse cap panned, spun, and tilted the model, in this case, of the Sydney Opera House. To change to camera motion, select the camera icon from the toolbar in the upper left-hand corner of the main window. Then, manipulating the cap makes it seem as if you are looking at the building directly through a camera lens.

Interestingly, the developer recently announced that its line of 3D mice will soon work with Second Life. This might seem trivial, but software developers such as SolidWorks and Autodesk own areas in that world, with a focus on education. As manufacturing increasingly goes digital and virtual, in the near future, a designer, for example, might be able to tour a virtual machine or factory with their alter-ego avatar. Users will be able to control avatar movement with the 3D mouse. In build mode, users will be able to manipulate 3D objects to see designs from several angles.

The SpaceNavigator for Notebooks comes from 3Dconnexion, 6505 Kaiser Dr., Fremont, CA 94555, (510) 713-6000, 3Dconnexion.com.

The box the mouse comes in includes colorful graphics that illustrate which way to push or twist the control cap to roll, pan, spin, tilt, or zoom a 3D object.