M Is for Mobile, and the Result Is Empowering
There are notes in these familiar songs that I have not heard before--a piano riff here, a subtle harmony there, a bit of percussion that I know I have never noticed. I am listening to songs from the 1960s and 1970s, songs that I have heard countless times before, but the quality of the stereo is such that these nuances are lovely surprises.
I go back to the work at hand, transferring blocks of text carried on a thumb drive from my desktop PC and pasting what I need into the current project. Another section of my writing finished, I switch gears to check my e-mail, downloading 233 messages in about three minutes. Reading through them quickly, replying to them, and then deleting them, I wonder if my pace has picked up as I continue to enjoy the upbeat tempos of old, familiar music in the background. I have been listening to these songs courtesy of streaming media from the Internet and now decide that it is time to shift my listening attention to something a bit more educational. Typing the web site <www.npr.org> (National Public Radio) into my web browser, I wait a few seconds and am now listening to the latest news stories. In one of them, I hear the name of a program that I would like to investigate later, so I make a quick voice recording of the title to remind myself to do so at a more convenient time. Meanwhile, I go back to the article that I need to complete by the end of the day. When I finish it, I save it as a Microsoft Word document, place it on the USB thumb drive, and return to listening to the hourly newscast streaming from National Public Radio.
To do all these things is becoming routine for many users of sophisticated technology. What moves the collective capabilities into the realm of noteworthy for people who are blind is that all these functions have been performed with a single device, a device that, to a sighted onlooker, is intriguing but mysterious because of the absence of any visual output and to the user who is blind offers an environment of absolute comfort and familiarity with its refreshable braille display, synthesized speech output when desired, and stereo delivery of music and audio information.
The device is the latest addition to HumanWare's family of BrailleNote products, the BrailleNote mPower, introduced on June 28, 2005, and first demonstrated at the conventions of the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind in Louisville and Las Vegas, respectively. Like any piece of technology, whether mainstream or designed for use by people with disabilities, the mPower has its sprinkling of imperfections and shortcomings. Yet as the current marketplace goes, this new kid on the block is phenomenal.
Before the mPower
For those who are not familiar with the BrailleNote products, a quick review is in order. Introduced in March 2000, the BrailleNote was the first piece of assistive technology to be likened to a personal digital assistant. Like the Blazie Engineering products before it, the first BrailleNote offered word processing, a planner, an address book, a calculator, and an alarm clock. What set it apart from its predecessors was its ability to import documents that were formatted for sighted users in, say, Microsoft Word and read them easily in contracted braille. Similarly, documents that were created in the BrailleNote's KeySoft environment could be exported as Microsoft Word files and thus seamlessly shared with sighted individuals. The built-in e-mail program (called KeyMail) was one quick way of facilitating the exchange of information between a braille-reading BrailleNote user and anyone else, again in the comfortable environment of composing and reading all messages in braille.
Since the original model, improvements have appeared at a fairly steady pace-- adding web-browsing capabilities, a compact flash card (in addition to the already available PCMCIA slot), and a media player for playing MP3 files. Even when Keysoft 6.1 added wireless capability, however, e-mail and web access were decidedly slower than what most PC users have come to expect. The media player did allow some MP3 files to be played, but with a sound quality that could best be described as serviceable. And there were other features that, although not exactly sensed as missing, could be (and have been) overshadowed by newer, flashier effects.
A cursory examination of the mPower yields the impression that it is much like the earlier BrailleNotes and VoiceNotes. It is the same size and has the same keyboard (braille or QWERTY), thumb keys, and braille display (again, optional 18- or 32-cell displays are available). Visually, the mPower appears somewhat sleeker and offers a bit more pizzazz, replacing the formerly gray case with a silver case and the teal keys with forest green keys. But a closer examination reveals distinct differences.
Caption: The BrailleNote mPower comes with either a braille or QWERTY keyboard.
Along the back panel of the mPower are the jacks for the power cord, traditional telephone line, and serial port, as on the earlier models. In addition to the compact flash slot (added with KeySoft 4.0 and higher), there is now a secure digital flash slot (a storage card about the size of a postage stamp), two USB host ports, one USB client port, and BlueTooth capability. The PCMCIA slot is still available on the right side of the unit. On the left, in addition to the earphone jack and power switch that were on earlier BrailleNotes, there is now a jack for an external microphone and a recessed Record button for making voice recordings. (The mPower has an internal microphone as well, so that attaching an external microphone is not necessary for making recordings.) Of course, as the old saw would have it, it's what's inside that counts.
First, there is plenty of onboard storage space with a 128MB flash drive. (Earlier BrailleNotes came with 16MB or 48MB.) With the addition of the secure digital (SD) and USB ports, not to mention the compact flash, the amount of storage that is available is virtually unlimited. The ability to play MP3 files and to stream audio from the Internet are worthwhile features in and of themselves, but the outstanding sound quality is an unexpected treat. (Note that this quality of sound is available only when you use headphones. The built-in speaker is the same as in earlier BrailleNotes, and while it is adequate for hearing what is being played, its delivery is by no means noteworthy.)
Using All Those Ports
Sharing or "syncing" data between devices is growing in popularity, and users who are blind or have low vision are not excluded when using a device like the mPower. From the client USB port, the mPower can be connected to a PC or notebook to transfer contacts and calendar items via ActiveSync swiftly and conveniently. Similarly, data can be swapped or "synced" between the mPower and any Bluetooth-capable device (such as many of the new mobile phones).
The two USB host ports make it a simple matter to attach thumb drives, external hard drives, USB-compatible printers, or other USB devices. The compact flash slot can accommodate a wireless adapter card or a compact flash storage card. (Some cards offer both features--a wireless adapter in addition to 128MB storage.) For those times when high-speed Internet access is not available, there is still an internal 56K modem and a standard telephone jack for dial-up access. One port that has not been included with all this new connectivity is the parallel port, although the manufacturer points out that parallel printers and other devices can be connected with a USB-to-parallel converter.
The most noticeable gain in the BrailleNote mPower is speed. Opening documents, downloading web pages, moving from one application to another--all these tasks are now possible faster and on the fly. In conjunction with this faster pace is the online flexibility. As I mentioned earlier, I downloaded 233 e-mail messages in about three minutes one day, and I have, at times, loaded web pages faster than when I used the high-speed connection in my office. When you audiostream news, music, or other entertainment, you can continue to work in other KeySoft applications--to read a book, write a paper, check your calendar, or calculate how much money is in your bank account. The same is true, of course, when you play MP3 files that you have stored on the flash disk, thumb drive, or other external location. The volume of the speech synthesizer and the volume of the media player are controlled separately, so that, for example, if you are listening to Mozart to help inspire the muse and then want the mPower to read back to you the last paragraph that you wrote, you can simply turn the music down and the speech synthesizer up.
Although it was not tested for this review, the GPS (global positioning satellite) software from Sendero Group LLC is one more option that is available for the BrailleNote or VoiceNote mPower. This software, in conjunction with traditional mobility skills, enables a person who is blind or has low vision to identify such points of interest as banks, restaurants, recreational centers, supermarkets, and hotels, as well as to learn the names of streets and to determine compass directions, speed of travel, and more.
Another "frill" that is resident in the mPower is a memo or voice recorder. User options allow the quality of recording to be set at low, medium, or CD quality (each taking more disk space, respectively). The Record button is deliberately recessed to avoid being pressed inadvertently. When a recording is desired, however, the button can be pressed, and no matter what application you are currently working in, the recording begins immediately. Voice recordings can then be played back in the Media Player.
Although this is a quaint addition, I suspect that it will have limited use. If, for example, you want to record something while taking notes simultaneously, the otherwise-quiet keyboard dominates the recording with a loud clatter. Still, when both hands are not free for ready keyboarding, the quick press of a single button to capture a phrase, title, telephone number, or other tidbit of information could prove to be convenient.
No piece of assistive technology is, as yet, able to meet every imaginable need of most users, and the mPower is no exception. First, the mPower does not, for example, have the capacity to play DAISY-formatted books or to import the Audible.com files that are gaining widespread popularity in the blind community. Second, the carrying case needs to be updated to accommodate a wireless adapter. (At this point, to close the case, the wireless card must first be removed.) The unit that I used for this review had a considerably shorter battery life than that of earlier BrailleNotes, which requires the unit to be charged every other day with heavy use, rather than every five or six days. Finally, the Record button, which was obviously made small and unobtrusive to avoid unwanted presses, may actually pose difficulties for some users.
That being said, this new product from HumanWare is an example of the company's continued attention to detail and commitment to developing products that feel immediately at home in the hands of users who are blind. If you want a single mobile device for reading books; writing documents; surfing the Web; listening to news and music from the Internet or from your own collection; and handling your e-mail, calendar, and contacts--and one that permits some serious multitasking--this will be a welcome set of solutions. With a wireless card, you can do all these things wherever a wireless environment exists--on a college campus or in a hotel, coffee shop, airport, or your own backyard (or in the home of a friend who has a wireless network). It is, in short, one more in a flurry of new products that bear witness to the fact that ours, at last, is a truly consumer-driven and competitive market.
The mPower is available in all the configurations of earlier BrailleNote models: 18-cell braille, 32-cell braille, a VoiceNote version (with voice only, no braille), and with either a braille or a QWERTY-style keyboard. For owners of earlier units who want to upgrade, HumanWare offers a "transplant" option, in which your current braille display is placed in an entirely new unit.
Manufacturer: HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393 or 925-680-7100; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.humanware.com>.
Price: BrailleNote mPower BT32 or QT32: $6,195; BrailleNote mPower BT18 or QT18: $4,395; or VoiceNote mPower BT or QT: $1,995; plus $45 shipping (all models).
The Next Generation: A Review of Personal Digital Assistants, Part 1 by Jim Denham, Jay Leventhal, and Heather McComas
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