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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 3

Product Review

A Review of the Eye-Pal SOLO and Eye-Pal SOLO LV from ABiSee, Inc.

The Eye-Pal SOLO and Eye-Pal SOLO LV from ABiSee, Inc., offer a standalone solution for reading documents by providing a single unit that can scan print documents and speak text aloud in a matter of seconds. The Eye-Pal SOLO, a product for people who are blind, and the Eye-Pal SOLO LV, a product for those with low vision, are physically identical products. However, they differ functionally in one way: the Eye-Pal SOLO LV offers additional low-vision access by providing very basic video magnifier functionality.

A photo of the Eye-Pal SOLO

Caption: The Eye-Pal SOLO

A photo of the Eye-Pal SOLO LV with a monitor displaying magnified text in high contrast colors.

Caption: The Eye-Pal SOLO LV

Documentation

The Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV come with an easy-to-understand 16-page user manual and a four-page quick reference sheet that explains the controls.

Both user manuals are printed in 12-point Arial font. The quick reference for the Eye-Pal SOLO is printed in 14-point Arial, and the Quick Reference for the Eye-Pal SOLO LV uses 12-point Arial. These font sizes are too small for most people with low vision to read. The American Printing House for the Blind recommends at least an 18-point font for those with low vision. Therefore, having larger print documentation would not only be helpful, but expected for these products. The user manuals' spiral binding, however, does allow the booklets to lie flat, making them easier to use with hand-held or video magnifier systems.

A PDF version of the Eye-Pal SOLO LV user manual, but not the quick reference guide, can be found on the ABiSee website. Although the electronic documentation is an option for users who wish to use screen magnification software to read the manual, the orientation of the online Eye-Pal SOLO LV user manual can be confusing. The pages of the PDF are organized irregularly, meaning that instead of going in chronological order from page 1 to page 16, the manual has the pages in this order: 16, 1, 2, 15, 14, 3, 4, 13, 12, 5, 6, 11, 10, 7, 8, and 9.

The Eye-Pal SOLO LV online manual is unfortunately inaccessible to screenreaders and the screen-reading features of popular screen-magnification programs. In addition, neither the quick reference guide nor the user manual for the Eye-Pal SOLO is available on the ABiSee website. This needs to be changed immediately as all documentation should be accessible to the end users of these products.

One useful resource that is available for users on the ABiSee website is a series of video tutorials for the Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV. These videos cover how to set up and control the two devices and provide nearly all of the information contained in the user manuals.

Physical Description and Controls

Straight out of the box, the Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV consist of a single black rectangular unit that serves as the base, a neck camera that attaches to the base and takes images of the document, and a keypad control used in addition to, or as a replacement for, the buttons on the front of the device. The Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV pull out of the box easily and are essentially ready to use after attaching the neck camera to the base and plugging the device in. The neck is designed so it can only be inserted in one direction, and it snaps into place, making for easy assembly. Neither the Eye-Pal SOLO nor Eye-Pal SOLO LV comes with a monitor, although both provide support for monitors to display the scanned text, and in the case of the SOLO LV, to magnify objects placed under its camera. The Eye-Pal SOLO has a VGA port on the back of the device that can be used to connect to any basic computer monitor.

The top of the rectangular base is used as the scanning surface for the Eye-Pal SOLO. A document is placed on the surface over the ABiSee logo, and after it has been situated, the neck camera will automatically take an image of the document and convert its text to speech. The direction or orientation of the document does not matter--as long as it is placed flat on the scanning area, the Eye-Pal SOLO will be able to convert the document to speech.

The Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV can be controlled using three different interfaces: there are buttons located on the front panel of the base, there is an external keypad with multiple function buttons, and the Eye-Pal SOLO introduces a new method of control: hand gestures.

Front Panel Interface

The controls along the front panel of the device are distinguishable from one another both visually and by touch. Additionally, the Eye-Pal SOLO provides spoken feedback after any button press, and no button, if accidentally pressed, would irreparably disrupt your reading. The controls comprise four square buttons, one circular button, and a dial, all of which physically protrude from the device and are color-coded for help with identification. Additionally, each button has an icon beside it to indicate its function.

Starting with the button at the far left is a red square button that can be used to read the previous sentence. This is the only button on the front of the device that allows you to navigate the scanned text, and it only allows you to move backwards one sentence at a time. This button can be pressed as many times as necessary to return to a specific sentence. Additional functionality for navigating the text, including moving forward and backward or word by word, is possible when using the keypad interface.

To the right of the "read previous sentence" button is a white circular button, which is used to pause or resume reading. The speech output can be paused mid-sentence, and when resumed, the reading will pick up immediately where it left off. Additionally, this circular white button also allows one to use hand gestures for controls. When this button is held down for three seconds, the Eye-Pal SOLO will inform you that motion controls have been activated.

Next to the "pause/resume reading" button is a dial that can be used to control speaker volume. This will affect the volume of both speakers inside the Eye-Pal SOLO and any headphones that are attached via the headphone port. Located next to the volume dial are two vertically aligned white square buttons. These can be used to control the reading speed of the Eye-Pal; pressing the top button will increase the reading speed, while pressing the bottom button will decrease it. The variance in speed is a welcome feature, with a wide range between the slowest and fastest reading speeds.

The green square button on the far right is the power button. The Eye-Pal SOLO can be kept on for long periods of time, but when first turning on the device, it typically takes about a minute to warm up and start speaking.

Keypad Interface

The Eye-Pal SOLO's keypad interface attaches to the base through a USB port on the back of the unit. Setting up the keypad is quick and simple, as it requires no further installation than plugging it into the Eye-Pal SOLO. The keypad offers a number of additional functions that cannot be accessed through the front panel; the pad is necessary if you wish to use the more advanced features of the Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV.

The keypads differ slightly for the Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV, as the keypad for the SOLO LV has three additional buttons to control its magnification functions. Otherwise, the keypads for the two devices are identical; they both have a rectangular shape and use large tactile buttons with protruding icons that help to identify the different buttons.

Starting with the group of buttons on the bottom of the keypad is a directional pad comprising four arrow keys with a "pause/resume" button in the middle. The pause/resume button on the keypad has a function identical to the pause/resume button on the front of the device. The arrow keys allow one to navigate the scanned text and use some of the more advanced reading features.

The left and right keys can be used to move forward and backwards in the text word by word, whereas the up and down keys are used to move sentence by sentence. This makes it easy to move around the document and control one's focus. Unfortunately, moving on a larger scale, such as moving between headers, paragraphs, or pages, is not possible with the Eye-Pal SOLO. This can make it cumbersome to use with longer documents when you need to get to a specific point deep in the text.

The arrow keys can also be used to activate some helpful features. Pressing the up and down arrows simultaneously will cause the Eye-Pal to describe the layout of the scanned document, including the number of headers and total word count. Although this is a welcome and helpful feature, the Eye-Pal sometimes provided perplexing layout information, including awkward identification of headers and once informing us that a page contained "122 percent text."

The Eye-Pal SOLO is designed to detect columns automatically and adjust the optical character recognition (OCR) settings accordingly, but the option to read through columns can be set manually by pressing the left and right arrows simultaneously. This is a more advanced feature that will likely not be needed by most users.

Directly above the directional pad is the "help" button, which is also the only round button on the keypad. Holding down the help button will provide the user with audio instructions on how to use the keypad to control the Eye-Pal SOLO. Additionally, holding down the help button while pressing any other button on the keypad will provide a spoken description of the button and its function(s).

Above the help button are the "save" and "recall" buttons, which allow the user to save up to 4 one-page documents to the Eye-Pal SOLO that can be loaded at any time. The process for saving documents is straightforward: hold down the save button and press one of the four arrow buttons. The device will let you know the file has been saved successfully by saying the words "image saved." When you wish to recall a saved document, you hold down the recall button and press the same arrow button. One document can be saved to each arrow button.

This covers all of the buttons on the keypad for the Eye-Pal SOLO, but unique to the keypad for Eye-Pal SOLO LV are three additional buttons used to control magnification functions. These additional features require a monitor to be attached to the base.

In between the save and recall buttons is a "mode" button, which is used to switch between reading mode and magnification mode. When you press the mode button, the Solo LV will tell you which mode you are in--either reading mode or magnification mode. In reading mode, the monitor will display the text of the scanned document, and in magnification mode, the monitor will display a magnified view of the area directly underneath the camera.

Directly above the mode button are the "color" and "zoom" buttons, which can be used to adjust the display in both reading and magnification modes. When in reading mode, these buttons change the appearance of the scanned text, allowing you to increase the size and color of the text and its background. In this setting, there are 14 levels of zoom and 12 high-contrast color settings. When in magnification mode, these buttons change the appearance of the magnified area. In this setting, there are four levels of zoom and 14 high-contrast color settings.

The zoom and color settings for the Eye-Pal SOLO LV are on a loop. For instance, pressing the zoom button will cause the Eye-Pal SOLO to increase zoom until you reach the maximum level, after which pressing the zoom button will take you back to the lowest level. There is no way to go back a level for zoom or color settings other than by cycling through all of the options. This can make it difficult to find the ideal settings without having to go through all of the zoom and color settings multiple times. Once you have found a zoom and color combination that works for you, this will likely no longer be an issue, but getting to that point may take a few tries.

Motion-Activated Interface

In addition to the front panel and keypad controls, the Eye-Pal SOLO introduces a new method of control through the use of hand gestures. The camera above the scanning area is designed to recognize hand movements, and after motion controls have been activated, the Eye-Pal SOLO will react to hand gestures.

By default, the motion controls are disabled and need to be activated by holding down the pause/resume button on the front of the device for 3 seconds, after which you will be informed that gesture controls have been activated. Activating motion controls does not restrict you from also using the buttons on the device or the keypad and is simply meant to provide an additional method for control.

The motion controls for the Eye-Pal SOLO are very limited compared with the keypad and can only be used in reading mode to pause/resume the reading or to read the previous sentence. To pause the reading, you simply need to move your hand slowly above the printed material from left to right. Repeating this gesture will cause the reading to resume. By moving your hand from right to left, you may read the previous sentence. This gesture can be repeated as many times as necessary to reach the desired position in a document.

In our experience, we found the gesture controls to be responsive and an interesting feature. We learned that the gestures need to be made slowly across the scanning area--if your hand moves too quickly or is too close to the camera, the gesture may not be recognized. Additionally, gestures cannot be made too quickly one after another, which makes the process of moving backwards in the document time consuming.

The motion controls are an interesting idea and do provide an easy way to pause/resume the reading and go back a few sentences. However, after using the Eye-Pal SOLO for an extended period, we found ourselves using the keypad rather than the motion controls because it felt more comfortable.

Scanning One-Page Documents

Scanning a simple one-page document, such as a memo, flyer, or letter, is a quick and easy process with the Eye-Pal SOLO. Its physical setup makes it easy to rest the document flat on the scanning surface and the orientation of the paper does not matter. The OCR is very successful at recognizing the correct letters and words, and the error rate when using a sheet of simply formatted text is very low.

As far as page formatting is concerned, the Eye-Pal SOLO is capable of recognizing paragraphs and headers in a document, and if hooked up to a monitor, the different page sections are identified visually through the use of line breaks and enlarged fonts. However, there is no speech descriptor to identify the location of headers or paragraphs. Although users can find the number of headers in a document by pressing the up and down keys simultaneously, there is no way to navigate between them or to know where they are in a document unless you are able to use an attached monitor.

This issue aside, the Eye-Pal SOLO works very well when dealing with these types of one-page documents. The documents are easy to position, the scan is very quick, and the text read aloud is accurate. This is the area in which the Eye-Pal SOLO performs at its best.

Scanning Text on Glossy Paper

We tested the Eye-Pal SOLO using several magazines with high-gloss pages that featured columned text, images, and tables. The two pages of a fully opened magazine are too large to place on the scanning area all at once as the device is only capable of examining one full page at a time. This requires positioning the magazine so that only one page is on the scanning area, which can be a little difficult at first as the magazine must be positioned on the scanning area without allowing hands to get in the way of the image. If the scanning area does accidently capture a portion of the next page, it can result in cut-off words and sentences being included in the reading. Although this problem can be resolved, it does take some practice.

After the magazines had been properly positioned, we found the Eye-Pal SOLO had no difficulty with glossy pages as it was able to recognize the text on the magazine page just as successfully as with the plain paper document. It was also very successful in recognizing columns on a page and reading the text in the correct order. We did encounter some problems when attempting to scan pages with images and tables. The Eye-Pal SOLO is programmed to ignore images, meaning it will simply skip over the image and not provide any information to the user that the document even contained images. However, sometimes the Eye-Pal SOLO would attempt to convert images to text, which resulted in garbled text. When encountering tables, it had difficulty maintaining the formatting in the table, and the resulting text could be very confusing and difficult to parse through, particularly if relying solely on the speech output. For simpler text-only articles, the Eye-Pal SOLO works well, but the introduction of more complex formatting and diagrams can cause issues.

Scanning Books

In addition to letters and magazines, several hardback and paperback books of varying sizes were used in this evaluation. As with the magazines, positioning the book on the scanning surface posed some problems. Unlike a traditional scanner, which requires the books to be positioned face down, the Eye-Pal requires the books to be positioned face-up. This requires users to manually hold the book open during the scanning process without their hands getting in the way of the image. This can be difficult when using books with a very tight binding, such as paperbacks. Even for smaller books where both pages fit on the scanning area, the books had to be picked up and placed back down every time a new page was to be scanned.

Once the book was properly positioned, however, the Eye-Pal SOLO was successful in scanning the text with little to no error. The issues with images and tables mentioned in the previous section were repeated when scanning books. The Eye-Pal can be used to read books, but the process takes some practice.

Eye-Pal SOLO LV's Video Magnification Functionality

The video magnification functionality offered by the Eye-Pal SOLO LV uses the neck camera to provide a live video feed to the monitor (not included). To use the video magnification function, the user presses the "mode" button on the keypad, which brings up a magnified view of the scanning area. The keypad for the Eye-Pal SOLO LV can be used to control the video magnification settings, which consist of switching between four levels of magnification and 14 high-contrast color settings.

Adding video magnification capability to this device is certainly a welcome feature; unfortunately, this feature does not work well on the Eye-Pal SOLO LV. In particular, the video camera on the Eye-Pal SOLO LV is of a lesser quality than that generally used in video magnifiers. The video camera has a noticeable delay and low frame rate, which can make it difficult to use. This is particularly noticeable when moving a document around the platform, as the quality of the video stream makes it difficult to follow a line of text when moving the document from left to right or top to bottom. Attempts to use its video magnifier feature as a handwriting aid were also met with difficulty due to these same problems.

Another issue we encountered with the video magnifier feature was how it worked with glossy materials. This includes magazines, flyers, book covers, and other text printed on high-gloss paper or plastic. The light attached to the neck camera creates a noticeable glare on the reading surface of the paper. The glare can make parts of the text simply unreadable, particularly on higher magnification settings.

The video magnification functionality offered by the Eye-Pal SOLO LV is far below the standard set by other video magnifiers on the market, and it is not ideal for extensive use, as either a writing or reading aid. Its limited functionality and poor video quality limit it to only the most basic use.

The Bottom Line

Overall, the Eye-Pal SOLO is a versatile unit that provides effective and relatively accurate OCR, and the SOLO LV can also act as a very basic video magnifier. Although it lacks the functionality and features that come with OCR software for your PC, or a standard video magnifier, the convenience of a single unit that can quickly scan and read documents with a minimum of fuss while also acting as a simple video magnifier will certainly appeal to some users of assistive technology.

The convenience and simplicity of the unit are its strengths, but they come at a cost of functionality and depth. Users looking for a quick and easy solution for reading documents will likely enjoy the Eye-Pal SOLO and SOLO LV, whereas more advanced users may prefer purchasing OCR software and/or a traditional video magnifier.

Product Information

Manufacturer: ABISee, Inc., 20 Main St, Suite G2, Acton, MA 01720; phone: 800-681-5909; website: www.abisee.com.

Product: Eye-Pal SOLO.

Price: $1,995.

Product: Eye-Pal SOLO LV.

Price: $2,595.

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Copyright © 2010 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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