How we interact with stuff (and cool tools to do it)

Ok, I know, I have to stop your imagination running wild: this article is not going to be about new electric prods to poke your sleeping colleagues. Sorry. If you’re familiar with the work of Gabriele Meldaikyte, or if you ever stopped a minute to think about the different gestures you can make with your fingers […]


Ok, I know, I have to stop your imagination running wild: this article is not going to be about new electric prods to poke your sleeping colleagues.

Not talking about this one

If you’re familiar with the work of Gabriele Meldaikyte, or if you ever stopped a minute to think about the different gestures you can make with your fingers in order to interact with a touchscreen, you’ll know they are a lot: scroll, pan, zoom, rotate and so on. In his work Multi-Touch Gestures, Gabriele highlighted what she defined to be the «five multi-touch gestures forming the language we use between our fingers and smartphone screens»:
– tap;
– scroll;
– flick;
– swipe;
– pinch.
I’ve always found her work to be extraordinarily witty and graceful: I urge to check it out if you haven’t already.

Gabriele Meldaikyte: Five multi-touch Gestures
Gabriele Meldaikyte: Five multi-touch Gestures

.2.pinch+to+zoom-gabriele+meldaikyte 3.tap-gabriele+meldaikyte 4.scroll-gabriele+meldaikyte.
.5.flick-gabriele+meldaikyte 6.swipe-gabriele+meldaikyte.

Depending on your preferred interface you might think that these gestures are universal but in fact they are not (think about zooming: double tap for some and slide with two fingers for others). A complete set of gestures across different user interfaces is yet to be compiled, although different developer’s toolkit and user interface designer’s resources provide insight and guidance (here and here, for instance).

No, this one never works…

The majority of those gestures are, however, for the end-user everyday tasks. Mostly they allow you to interact with stuff in a passive way: you can flick through a magazine, scroll down a page (I’ll get to the difference in a minute), zoom and pan on a map.

Lots of tools have been developed to simulate hand-sketch drawings: from the different Bamboo stylus to the iPad Pro Apple Pencil for technical drawing.
Professionals working in the CAD business always needed more, and here I mean CAD in the broader of senses: Computer Aided Drawing and Modelling. Because if it was convenient to use a pencil, hey, we would be still using a pencil, right?

Nice, but not what I need…

In 2015, a student at the Royal College of Art in London tried to have our voices heard: he developed what they called a “tactile interface to navigate CAD environments”. You can read the whole story on DeZeen, here, and this time it doesn’t features dildos.
I steal some pictures from them, for the laziest among you.

Interfacet project by Ming Kong

.Interfacet_Ming-Kong_Royal-College-of-Art_dezeen_468_3 Interfacet_Ming-Kong_Royal-College-of-Art_dezeen_468_6 Interfacet_Ming-Kong_Royal-College-of-Art_dezeen_468_7 Interfacet_Ming-Kong_Royal-College-of-Art_dezeen_sq.

The main idea here is that in order to effectively operate within a virtual environment you need a set of movements and actions that the traditional interfaces are unable to provide. And while the world moves fast towards an era of immersive environments (or not) the issue still stands. We need advanced tools to be more proficient in our work.

Enters the idea of a 3d mouse.

I know, I know… all mouses are 3d, aren’t they? Well, it’s not meant in that way, you silly.

I know, I know, this is 3d too…

A 3d mouse is an input device that allows you to interact more easily with 3d objects on your screen.
Right now, interaction is made by combination of a series of keyboard and mouse inputs and lots of interfaces use different inputs to do the same thing. You know this if you’ve been switching often from one software to the other: what orbits in Revit pans in other softwares.
In order to help us with navigation of 3d views, at a certain point in history Autodesk introduced the steering wheel which comes in three options:
– Full Navigation;
– View Object;
– Tour Building.


It’s a useful tool for design review: you create a 3d view and then you navigate through it, a feature some users erroneously point out to be missing in Revit while present in other more intuitive and less precise software.

– What do you Move –

The main difference here between the two options is a major difference in approach.
1) you pretend to be moving while the building stands still;
2) you stand still, and pretend to move the object.
The first solution is viable for explorative interfaces, for immersive environments (though oddly enough most visors nowadays use the second approach due to phisical limitations).
The second solution is for an isometric approach: you are not playing in a first-person shooter anymore, it’s more suitable for a tactical view from above.
If you’re designing a building, you are going to need both.
If you’re designing objects, I guess you’ll be fine with the second one.
Mind that this main difference stays the same also when it comes to a 3d mouse.

– How do you move –

The improvement of a 3d mouse acts mainly in this field. While a traditional mouse requires an interaction with static buttons, a 3d mouse allows you with a tool more similar to a joystick, providing you with different degrees of flexibility and freedom depending on the product. I recently tried the 3dconnexion SpaceMouse (the one you see in the picture at the top of the article) and it’s really great. Instead of messing around with your mouse, you operate it just as a joystick and it has 6 Degrees of Freedom (6DoF, a patented system): you can push it, pull it, twist it and you will find yourself swirling around your model with much less effort then before.

It works with lots of software and you can find a complete list here. Among them you’ll find our favourite BIM-enabling software (Revit, ArchiCad and AllPlan), but also modelling software like Rhino, Inventor, Catia, Solidworks, 3dsMax and Maya, Cinema 4d and Blender. You can also use it to navigate our beautiful planet with GoogleEarth and NASA WorldWind.

How does it work you ask?
All you need to do is installing the plug-in and it will pair up with the software you are using. Revit, in my case. You go to their website, you download the drivers for your OS: it’s an .exe of about 200 Mb and the website is rather slow, so you might want to listen to some music of watch a movie. Here’s what I picked.


When it’s done, you do the usual stuff: pick your language, accept condition, pick your setup and so on. If you have your 3d mouse connected, you can pour yourself a beer and watch it light up from time to time, happily recognizing what’s going on in your computer. This may take several minutes, they say. And it does. Therefore you might want to watch something else. Here’s what I picked.


At the end it will ask you to register and light up like a Christmas Tree, but you can skip this and it won’t switch off. Not that I know of, at least.

When it’s done, you can start using it and I tell you it’s amazing. You can do the usual stuff in both ways (moving the object or move yourself in navigation mode), just with a smooth device that allows you 6 degrees of freedom in order to go back and forth, turn left and right, fly or sink.

These are all features you can find also in the SpaceNavigator: this little guy below.

3Dconnexion _ SpaceNavigatorIn addition, the SpaceMouse has a series of customizable buttons, the most useful of them being the Escape one (if you ever get lost wandering inside your model and you can’t find your way out of that void in the ceiling).

Below you see a demonstration they did for the product. Trust me when I tell you that your regular mouse is medieval.




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