Where’s the Future of 3D interaction?

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3Dconnexion has just released details of research they’ve been doing into the return on investment, commercial pay back that can be gained from using its 3d motion control devices. According to the research those using 3D mouse devices users noted that they were comfortable using the 3D mouse within two days from the time they began using it (80% of them in fact) and 70% felt proficient within the first week.

The report (available at www.3Dconnexion.com/productivity) brings many more facts to light about the time that can be saved by adopting a tool that’s designed specifically for the job. It is really worth a read.

The question this raises for me is that that for decades now, many of us have been using 3D based design tools to develop new products on a daily basis, but still many of us are using the same keyboard and mouse combo that we have had since time immemorial. Let’s not forget that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow down typists on mechanical typewriters so they wouldn’t jam up – is that really the optimum way of interacting with 3D data?

Users are now becoming much more familiar with 3D based working practices, particularly in the professional design related sphere of influence – but I do wonder where we’re headed next?

The last few events I’ve attended have seen references to how Nintendo have changed the 3D interaction world with the Wii and specifically, the WiiMote device.

Dassault demonstrated how the WiiMote device can interact with CAD-related data at the recent DEVCON event in Paris. Of course, Dassault has an interest in Gaming technology because of its Virtools technology (which now supports the Wii platform) and has a head start on many of the CAD company’s not involved in the industry. Dassault’s Bernard Charles also hinted at the same event that their development team is currently working on a hardware-based device for Catia and Enovia users. A chat with the head of their Research and Development team confirmed that this might be in the offing.

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Elsewhere, a CAD user has built a drive to allow the use of the WiiMote within Autodesk’s Design Review and the same tool has been made available on the Autodesk Labs website.

I’m reminded of a chat I had with Bill Buxton, the then Chief Scientist of Applied Sciences at Alias Wavefront, who, ten years ago, talked about many of the things that are only now coming to light. If you take a look at his personal web-site, then you can see many of the devices that his team worked on back then. And if you want a further interesting read, get hold of his Sketching User Experiences book. It’s honestly one of the best books on subject I’ve ever read and should be on every designers bookshelf.

Bringing us back to 3Dconnexion and its research, I’m amazed that the company still is the only vendor actively pursuing this area. The potential to do really interesting things has been there for some time. Many have come and gone.

The Dimentor Inspector – combined a trackball and optical mouse – and had around the same lifespan as the average rodent.

There was the Dimentor Inspector device from Sweden, which combined a mouse with a trackball to navigate in 3D (I’ve still got one sat in a box in the loft). It only really worked with SolidWorks and the company was only around for a year or so.

Others have had a crack at it with limited success and I find it strange that its only 3Dconnexion that has managed to actually achieve any form of market penetration – and I take my hat off to them. They took some time to develop truly usable products and made a few mistakes on the way. I still use a prototype of the original, but short lived, SpaceNavigator device, which saw the integration of a SpaceMouse with a Logitech Keyboard (3Dconnexion’s parent company) – and promptly got canned.

I’m off to interview the guys in charge of SpaceMouse products in a couple of weeks and if anyone has any questions, ideas or information they’d like me to ask, to find out, then I’d be more than happy to ask and report back on the response I get.

And don’t get me started on MultiTouch – that’s stuff is coming – its an exciting new world and as professional users of 3D, we’re looking to get the most out of it.