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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 5

Product Evaluation

"Is This for Here or to Go?" A Series on Portable, Laptop-Compatible Video Magnifiers, Part 3

More and more people with low vision are on the move and want and need to take their computers and magnification with them. Keeping pace with this trend, manufacturers of closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) are working to provide portable options for full-featured CCTVs. The idea of portable, full-featured CCTVs has been gaining momentum, resulting in a greater number of portable, laptop-compatible CCTVs that people with low vision can now benefit from more readily.

To help potential buyers make an informed purchase, this series of articles highlights the products' positive attributes and areas that could be improved. This type of assistive technology can be expensive; therefore, it is important to be as knowledgeable as possible about your options before you make a choice.

This article, which evaluates the i-Stick from OPTRON Assistive Technologies, is the third in a series of evaluations of laptop-compatible CCTVs. All the products in this series are laptop compatible, weigh less than 5 pounds, have a rotating camera that allows for near and distance viewing, and have the ability to take a "picture" of an image and save it to the computer.

All the products can also be connected to a laptop, desktop, or stand-alone VGA monitor. Since most people who purchase this type of product use it with their laptops, I chose to use a laptop to evaluate them. For this evaluation, as with the previous evaluations in this series, I used an IBM ThinkPad running Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2, with a Pentium M 1.86 GHz processor with 1 GB of RAM. I also used ZoomText 9.0 Magnifier/Reader in conjunction with the CCTV.

For this evaluation, as with all previous ones in this series, I set up the product at the desk in my office and used it for approximately one week to do my daily office work. I also took it to meetings, where I used it to read handouts and take notes. I even took it home, where I used it to look up telephone numbers and write checks to pay monthly bills. This way, I learned firsthand the characteristics of the product. As with the other CCTVs in this series, I evaluated the i-Stick in four main areas: print and onscreen documentation, minimum requirements and product design, software installation and setup, and features.

The i-Stick

Print and Onscreen Documentation

The 29-page User Manual is printed in approximately 16-point font, which is larger than average print, but does not meet the guideline of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) of at least 18-point font for people with low vision. While the manual does a nice job of providing large picture diagrams of the i-Stick, it presents examples of screen layouts and dialogue boxes that are too small for most people with low vision to read. Another shortcoming of the manual is that it does not discuss the need to turn your screen-magnification program on and off, at times, while using the device. Furthermore, no onscreen documentation is available with the i-Stick, which I was surprised to discover. All the other products evaluated thus far in this series have an electronic user manual that is loaded onto your computer during the software installation process. Without the electronic user manual, you need to carry the printed manual with you at all times in case you need to look up an aspect of the product or refresh your memory on its hot keys. The user manual also does not give detailed information on how to use the OPTRONView software; thus, the user would not know what to expect or how to use the items in the menu bar, including File, Device, Options, Capture, or Help. Finally, the user guide is presented in a clear plastic folder with a plastic binding that pinches the pages together along the left margin--the type of folder sometimes used to submit reports in school. With this type of folder, the pages can easily come loose and become disorganized. If the user guide were presented in a more durable form, such as a spiral-bound booklet, the pages would remain securely fastened and flat, making them easier to read under the camera of a CCTV.

Minimum Requirements and Product Design

According to OPTRON Assistive Technologies, to use the i-Stick with your laptop, you must use Windows XP Service Pack 2 and have one integrated USB 2.0 port. You also need a Pentium III processor or higher with a minimum of 512 MB of working memory (RAM) and a minimum of 64 MB AGP of video memory. To use the system in minimum resolution, you need screen resolution of 640 x 480 or 800 x 600 at 32 bit, which is recommended. You also need 30 MB of free hard disk space for the OPTRONView software and additional space for saving images or video streams.

The i-Stick is shipped with a carrying bag; the folding camera arm with a camera head; the magnetic base stabilizer; the table clamp mount; the base-unit control box; the external power adapter; cables for connection to a computer, stand-alone VGA monitor, and television set; one battery; and the software installation CD.

The i-Stick's camera arm fits into the 5-by-11-inch base-unit control box that has seven tactile buttons: Power, Auto Focus Lock, Reverse Polarity, Reading Line, Brightness Adjustment, and Increase and Decrease Magnification. The Brightness Adjustment and Reading Line controls on the base-unit control box, however, function only when you use a stand-alone VGA monitor. When you use the i-Stick with a laptop, the brightness is controlled through the keyboard's function keys, and the Reading Line feature is not available.

Photo of the i-Stick camera mounted in the control box and connected to a laptop computer, which is displaying print from a magazine.

Caption: The i-Stick connected to a laptop.

Most users will probably stabilize this base-unit control box with the 4-by-10-inch magnetized base-stabilizing plate. In addition to this magnetic stabilizer, two other camera-arm holders and a table clamp mount are available with the i-Stick that enable you to position the camera arm in different configurations on your desk. With the different mount options you can set up the i-Stick to suit your particular needs at the moment, such as for reading oversized books.

The i-Stick's camera is mounted on a folding swivel arm that can be straightened to a height of 22 inches and turned to provide a 360-degree surround view, which makes it extremely versatile. This unique design enables the i-Stick to capture views that other laptop-compatible CCTVs may not be able to reach. For example, the camera can be raised to look over the heads of fellow classmates, and you can turn the camera to look at objects to the side or back of you.

Photo of the i-Stick's camera and swivel arm extended fully.

Caption: The i-Stick's unique folding swivel arm makes it extremely versatile.

The i-Stick's camera image on the display can be adjusted to an upright and level position by turning the camera's TwistCam Ring. The TwistCam Ring design is another unique aspect of the i-Stick, which allows you to position the camera itself in various ways and still keep a level view. It also eliminates upside-down images on the screen and enables both right- and left-handed people to use the device with the same ease.

The i-Stick can be powered by its exchangeable, rechargeable battery or its AC adapter and draws no power from your laptop. Depending on the amount of magnification zooming and auto focusing you need during your work session, the fully charged battery can last from 1 1/2 hours to a maximum of 3 hours. The recharging process also takes approximately 3 hours. This amount of battery life would not take a student or a professional through a typical day without the i-Stick needing to be recharged or plugged into the AC adapter. There is no way to tell how much battery life you have left on the i-Stick, so you would most likely need to carry an extra battery or the AC adapter with you "just in case."

Unlike the PC Mate, ClearNote, and MLS Student Addition, which were evaluated earlier in this series, the lens that covers the i-Stick's camera opening for desktop viewing is not attached to the camera. It is a separate piece that attaches magnetically to the camera opening. You would need to be careful with this separate piece, as to not allow it to be dropped or become misplaced.

For desktop viewing, the i-Stick's camera is turned down to face the object or text, and the magnetic lens should be attached to cover the camera opening. For distance viewing, the camera is pointed toward the distant object, and the magnetic lens that covers the camera opening should be removed.

Software Installation and Setup

The software installation and initial setup of the i-Stick are not difficult if screen-magnification software is running. The screen-magnification software enlarges the instructions for installation to make them readable to people with low vision. To install the OPTRONView software, you insert the CD and follow the instructions on your screen. After the OPTRONView software is installed, you must then install the drivers. Instructions for installing the drivers are in the user guide, and installation is quick and easy to do, but there is no onscreen information that tells you that this second step is necessary. If you do not read the print user guide before you attempt to install the software and rely only on the onscreen information, you will encounter a problem. Thus, onscreen information is needed to tell you about the second step in the installation process. Information and instructions describing the second step of the installation would make it a much smoother process, especially for those who are less computer savvy.

The i-Stick is easy to transport from place to place. When you get to your destination, you connect the camera arm to your choice of mounts, connect the camera's cable to the base-unit control box, connect the base-unit control box to your laptop via the USB 2 port, start the computer, start your screen-magnification software, click on the OPTRONView icon on your desktop, and you are ready to go.

Features

The i-Stick features a responsive auto-focus camera with a magnification range of from 1 time to 55 times on a 15-inch monitor. As with other products that have been evaluated in this series, when text is moved under the camera, the letters become pixilated, which makes the words increasingly difficult to read as the speed at which you move the text increases. Text has to be moved slowly for the letters not to become pixilated, which can decrease your work efficiency.

Positioning the Image on the Screen

The camera image on the screen can be adjusted to suit your preferences by pressing the Function Keys and the following combinations:

  • F1 moves the image to the left top corner of the screen.
  • F2 moves the image to the right top corner of the screen.
  • F3 moves the image to the left bottom corner of the screen.
  • F4 moves the image to the right bottom corner of the screen.
  • Control-F1 displays a full screen image.
  • Control-F2 displays the image in the upper third of the screen.
  • Control-F3 displays the image in a column on the right half of the screen.

The size and position of the camera image can also be adjusted by using the mouse drag-and-drop function.

Auto Focus Lock

When you look at three-dimensional objects or when writing under the camera, you may want to activate the Auto Focus Lock feature by pressing the Auto Focus Lock button on the base-unit control box. Doing so will maintain a constant focus distance, which keeps the camera from being distracted by your moving hand or pen. To turn the feature off, press the button again.

Brightness and Contrast

Pressing F5 increases the brightness of the image, and pressing F6 decreases the brightness. Pressing F7 increases the contrast of the image, and pressing F8 decreases the contrast.

Black-and-White Image

Pressing Control-F5 changes the color image to black and white, and pressing Control-F6 changes the image back to color.

Reverse Polarity

Pressing the red button in the top right corner of the base-unit control box turns the image into reverse polarity--that is, turning black into white and white into black. Pressing the button a second time returns the image to the natural color.

Auto Adjust Reverse Polarity

If the reverse polarity seems pale on your laptop screen, pressing Control-F7 will automatically adjust the image to the optimal reverse-polarity setting. At any time, you can reset the image to the default color, brightness, and contrast settings by pressing Control-F8. While the i-Stick offers black-and-white and reverse-polarity display settings, high-contrast, artificial color display settings are not available.

Image Capture

Pressing F9 saves the current image to a bitmap file on your desktop. The first captured image is given the file name "Bitmap00001.bmp." If you capture several images, they will be saved with the same file name with an ascending number, for example, "Bitmap00002.bmp."

A useful feature allows you to save images in categories, such as subjects in school. For example, in a math class, a student could save all the math pictures under the Math category, and in a science class, the student could save all the pictures under the Science category. To save images in a particular category, you start the i-Stick software by double clicking on the subject icon you create on your desktop. This process involves several steps, and you may need to refer to the user guide until you get used to creating new categories. But after the categories are set up, they will help you keep much better track of your images.

Video Streaming

The i-Stick can also capture and save videos (no audio). This is a unique feature of the i-Stick. Although I do not think that most people will use this feature often, it is available if you need it. This feature, like creating categories for captured images, involves several steps, but the one confusing step in this process is that you are asked to enter the maximum number of megabytes that you want to allocate to the video stream file. The question is, "How do I know?" There is no guide to tell you how 1 MB of memory is related to the duration of a video. If, for example, I need to capture a three-minute video, how do I know how many megabytes to allocate for the file? It would be helpful if there was a guide to assist with this information. As it is, I suggest that you practice taking video streams with your particular laptop to learn about its characteristics before you are in a situation where you need to use this feature.

What Would Make It Better

The i-Stick could be improved in four main ways: (1) by improving the documentation, (2) by streamlining the process of organizing saved images and the process of creating video streams, (3) by improving the quality of the display when text is moved under the camera, and (4) by having all the features on the base-unit control box available through the computer's keyboard.

The documentation for the i-Stick should be provided in 18-point font, to meet the American Printing House for the Blind's guideline, and the size of all examples of screen layouts and dialogue boxes should be increased to make them more accessible to people with low vision. The documentation would be better if presented in a more durable format, and it should give more detailed information on how to use the OPTRONView software. An electronic user guide would also be a useful and appreciated addition.

Although saving images and creating video streams are great features, streamlining the process of organizing the saved images and the process of creating video streams by requiring fewer steps and mouse clicks would make the product easier to use. As with other products that have been evaluated in this series, improving the quality of the display while text is moved under the camera would improve your work efficiency and make the product easier to use.

Last, but certainly not least, making all the features on the base-unit control box available through the computer's keyboard would eliminate the need for the control box when you use the i-Stick with a laptop. Eliminating this extra piece of equipment would streamline the product and increase its portability.

The Bottom Line

The i-Stick from OPTRON Technologies is a portable auto-focus CCTV that is designed with a rotating auto-focus camera to facilitate near, distance, and self-viewing and can be connected to a laptop or desktop computer, stand-alone VGA monitor, or television set. It provides up to 55 times magnification on a 15-inch monitor and gives you the choices of natural color, black-and-white, and reverse-polarity display modes. It also enables you to capture images, save them to your computer, and organize them into categories that can be accessed on your computer's desktop. You also have the ability to capture video streams and save them to your computer. Because of some of its unique features, such as the extendable camera arm, the surround view, and the TwistCam feature, the i-Stick seems especially well suited to classroom settings.

As I previously stated in this series, I would not recommend laptop-compatible CCTVs for large amounts of extended sessions of text reading, a task that may be better left to traditional, desktop CCTVs with x-y tables. In these situations, traditional CCTVs, I believe, are more ergonomically designed, with the video display positioned much closer to eye level, so you may not have to lean as far forward or look down to read the laptop screen. The x-y table also allows you to glide text back and forth more easily than when you push books or papers back and forth on a table using a laptop-compatible CCTV.

The i-Stick from OPTRON Technologies is priced at about $3,200, so if you also need to purchase a new laptop to meet the minimum or recommended system requirements, the total cost could be quite expensive, although it is an option to consider if portability and versatility are what you need.

Manufacturer's Comments

"We at Optron Assistive Technologies would like to thank AFB TECH and Mr. Huffman for his thorough and knowledgeable testing of the i-Stick. We are working hard to provide our customers with the best products available and we try to improve them whenever possible. For that reason, we highly appreciate the suggestions published in the article, most of which have already been integrated into the system.

The i-Stick documentation is now printed in a larger font size which corresponds with the recommended 18pt Times New Roman characters. All images of screen layouts in the documentation have been enlarged by at least one-third. The print manual is presented in a spiral-bound booklet. Online documentation is delivered with every i-Stick.

We simplified the video streaming process. Instead of limiting the file by size, the user can now limit the file by time recorded. A guide line of the approximate file size per second is listed in the manual.

The strong ghosting effect, which results in a lower image quality when text is moved underneath the camera, is due to the slow response time of the laptop screen. Until the laptop manufacturers have solved this problem, we recommend that all users who require a better reading quality use a VGA monitor whenever possible. The i-Stick is equipped with a VGA port which connects directly to the monitor cable. There is no extra hardware or software required. It delivers an excellent color image to both flat panel and tube-type monitors.

Most of our customers prefer to have the zoom controls on the base box. These controls are very precise and offer an excellent tactile recognition. The probability of pushing the wrong key or key combination on the laptop keyboard is eliminated and the user uses the same controls for either display type. Since the positioning of the base box is very flexible, we believe that this is the more efficient and user friendly solution for most of our customers.

Again, I would like to thank Mr. Huffman for all his work and encourage our current and future customers to share their ideas for product improvement with us. We at Optron Assistive Technologies see this as an extremely important way of keeping outstanding quality standards for all our products."


View the Product Features as a graphic

View the Product Features as text

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View the Product Ratings as text

Product Information

Product: i-Stick.

Manufacturer: OPTRON Assistive Technologies, P.O. Box 5454, Morton, IL 61550; phone: 309-694-2077 or 888-567-8766 (888-5OPTRON); e-mail: <info@optronusa.com>; web site: <www.optronusa.com>.

Price: $3,200.

Related Articles

How to Buy a CCTV by Carol Farrenkopf
"Is This for Here or to Go?" A Series on Portable, Laptop Compatible Video Magnifiers Part 2. by Lee Huffman


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Copyright © 2006 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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