Spaceballs Get Serialized

As much as we’d love a TV show version of the cult classic movie, we’re talking about a different kind of Spaceball. While there have been many iterations, [Evan] had a Spaceball built by a company known as Spacetec in 1991 and rebranded by HP. Being an older peripheral, he used the Orbotron 9001, a converter from RS232 serial to USB, to interface his Spaceball with modern devices.

The spaceball was one of the first 6 degrees of freedom controllers, useful for CAD and some games that supported it. It’s famous for being involved in the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission as it was used to control the Sojourner rover. In addition to the perfect orb, it also features eight handy buttons.

The Orbotron is a USB-capable microcontroller (Atmel SAMD21) designed to support the Spaceball 360, 4000, and 5000 series. Ultimately, after tinkering with the code to support the 2003 and 3003 Spaceballs, he had some reasonably usable with some rough edges. For example, acceleration curves still need tweaking, and going too fast can get you stuck. The downside was the rubber coating on the ball that had degraded over the years, making it horrendously sticky.

All the code changes are on GitHub. We’d love to see more spacemice integrated into things, like this ergonomic keyboard. Or even an open-source version of a spacemouse. After the break, we have a video of [Adafruit] showing a Spaceball 2003 working with a serial adapter.

33 thoughts on “Spaceballs Get Serialized

    1. That stupid coating is used to this day. Had to clean it off from a Wacom tablet stylus and also a more modern version of the SpaceBall from the article – the 3DConnexion (now Logitech) SpaceNavigator.

      It is horrific.

      BTW, there were USB versions of that SpaceBall too, also marketed as SpaceMouse and what not. The early ones were sold by SGI with their workstations, then HP & IBM rebranded them too.

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            Not all who dislike IPAs are lawnmower beer drinkers.

    2. It’s a sad day whenever I discover one of my devices has contracted sticky-rubber-itis, as I call it. PU coatings feel great when brand new, but eventually some petroleum products will return to their natural form.

  1. Not just from the early 90s, but we are still getting that nasty stuff today. One of my older Amazon Fire TV remotes has that sticky stuff on it, as does my 2014 Nexus tablet. And, that can’t be “good” for us, now can it? I don’t have any elbows left!

      1. Noticed the same earlier this week on a couple of switch joycons that hadn’t seen use since last winter. That coating, and the similar black rubber feet that melt into any surface, ought to be banned.

      1. Descent was amazing with a 6DOF controller. I didn’t have a SpaceBall but used some big thing from Logitech which was like a mouse mounted on a stick. Got so disoriented sometimes playing that game but it was fun.

    1. Use more alcohol, e.g. denatured ethanol and it comes off quite easily. I cleaned my whole hairdrier from “sticky goo surface” to (more or less) “shiny black plastic” quite fast with that stuff. The bicarb only acts as abrasive without much chemical or solvent action.
      The only other treatement for such surfaces, I tried before I found out about the alcohol was covering the sticky surface with plenty of talcum powder. But that does not remove the sticky stuff and if it releases more sticky oil you have to repeat it. After cleaning with alcohol the problem is gone. Sometimes alcohol really solves problems :-)

  2. A couple corrections. While HP did put their brand on ones they re-sold to their CAD workstation customers, so did IBM, Sun, SGI, and possibly even Apollo. I’m not sure if SpaceTec rebranded or was bought to become 3dconnexion (a company that still exists and makes the new ones), but Logitech bought them (and kept the branding) decades ago.

    There’s a much older project with similar goals to this one (adding USB to a serial SpaceBall) called the OrbDuino or OrbShield (not sure why the name change). If you google “orbshield”, you’ll find both a nice wiki on sourceforge on it, an instructables, and a very long-out-of-stock listing on seeedstudio.

    I’m glad to see these getting attention again. They’re great old devices. The more projects making them available to people, the better!

    I still have an HP and a SpaceBall branded 2003 model (circa early ’90s), and the rubber on the balls is still in perfect shape (I’d love to get one of the ones made with a Sun logo). I used to have an IBM branded one, but it’s long gone.
    All the comments comparing the rubber to the rubberized micron-thin coating used on all kinds of cheap devices these days are just weird as the rubber is nothing like that. It’s a thick molded sheath wrapped around the ball, not a thin coating that goes gooey over time. These were quality units, all of them.

    I also have a couple 5000USB models that I was lucky enough to pick up on ebay when all the companies were dumping them off due to Logitech refusing to make drivers for Windows 10. They were trying to use Microsoft’s weight to force companies to replace their spaceballs with new spacemice (which I personally think are a much worse design).

    If I hadn’t managed to land the 5000USB units, I would have probably hacked together my own OrbShield by now, although I probably would have ended up making a messy hand-wired version as I found that project long before I found out about the companies in China making super cheap low-run PCBs, but long after seeedstudio sold out the boards (that project is from 2009).

    I used to love my CyberMan2 (I think I have a couple of them somewhere), but since it uses a gameport, it’s effectively useless without replacing the electronics (unless I dig up an old 486 to run Descent).

    In case anyone is wondering what use these would be with no windows drivers, they work great in Linux! I use mine daily with FreeCAD and absolutely love it! (it’s also supposed to work with Blender, but I never use it)

    If you want to see more versions than you ever imagined existed, check out the “historical gallery” section on Lots of open source projects listed on the main page too.

    Fun fact: You can see a SpaceBall 2003 painted black on K’s desk in Men In Black in the scene where he’s checking in on his long-lost girlfriend. :)

  3. SpaceBalls work great on Linux… Logitech’s refusal to provide drivers for Windows 10 (to force everyone to buy new SpaceMice) resulted in tons of them getting dumped onto ebay a few years back.
    I love using my 5000USB with FreeCAD. :)

    1. On Windows the default HID drivers work fine too. If you try installing the official drivers they’ll recognize the old hardware and refuse to communicate with it.

      The only downside is the default drivers don’t work with remapping inputs, so the only software I use that recognizes my SpaceMouse is Blender. I’d pay money to use it as a controller in Elite Dangerous or No Man’s Sky.

  4. A german company produced a comparable and mostly compatible version that received a win10 driver update in 2018. Im using their hardware so I cant say it works with the 3dconnexion software. Good luck

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