Lowering the Price of Braille: A Review of the Seika Braille Display
For avid braille readers, the earliest accessible computers with their text-to-speech capabilities did not stir as much excitement as did their audio-inclined counterparts. In the early 1980s, however, with the arrival of the tape-based VersaBraille system, the prospect of using assistive technology loomed brighter for those who read braille. Reading braille with the fingers, studies have shown, stimulates the visual cortex, and so it is that readers of braille feel the same intimate word-to-brain connection as do their sighted peers. The VersaBraille, offering 20 cells of refreshable braille (pins that move up and down to replicate the print being sent to the screen) was, for its time, something of a miracle device. In the 25 years since then, a virtual onslaught of devices boasting refreshable braille displays have entered the assistive technology marketplace. Offering from 12 to 80 cells, these displays can connect to a variety of computers (running screen-reading software) as well as some phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), to put in the hands of the braille reader all information that is visually displayed on the screen. Other products, notetakers/PDAs, have incorporated a refreshable braille display into stand-alone systems capable of doing anything from preparing documents and taking notes to searching the Internet and reading electronic books.
The most significant drawback to refreshable braille devices has always been their cost. From the mid-1980s to the present, the loose rule of estimation applied to these products has translated into something like $100 to $150 per braille cell. A 40-cell display, in other words, may cost $4,000 to $6,000, while an 80-cell model will cost $8,000 to $12,000. And so it has been that, while desirable, braille computer access has been out of reach for many users of assistive technology.
The Perkins School for the Blind is not typically associated with the sale or distribution of assistive technology products. In early January 2009, however, Perkins announced the introduction of its new 40-cell, lower-cost refreshable braille display. Called the Seika, the display has 40 8-dot braille cells, connects via USB, and sells for only $2,495 (bringing the $100 to $150 per-cell cost down to about $62 per cell.) Did lower cost mean lesser performance? A test drive was definitely in order.
The Seika is sleek and portable. Measuring 13.3 inches wide by 3.5 inches deep × 0.8 inches high and weighing .5 KG (1.3 pounds), the Seika can be packed easily into any bag or briefcase along with a laptop or netbook computer. Above the 40 cells are 40 matching cursor-routing buttons that, when pressed, bring focus to the desired word or character. Below the 40 cells, at 5-character intervals, are braille numbers corresponding to the cell. (There is, in other words, a 1 below the 1st cell, a 5 below the 5th cell, a 2 below the 20th cell, a 5 below the 25th, and so on.) At either end of the 40-cell strip are two round buttons. On the front edge of the unit are four rubberized controls, actually acting as six. On the extreme right and left are two longer bars, referred to simply as Left Control and Right Control. In the center are two smaller oval controls, called Shifts. The Right and Left Controls each act as two, depending on whether the right end or left end of the bar is pressed. Pressing Left Control Right, for example, meaning the left end of the right-most control, moves down one line on the screen, while pressing Right Control Right, the right end of that same control, moves the focus up one line. The only other points on the entire unit are the USB port on the right edge and four rubberized feet on the bottom for stability.
Installation of the Seika is, for the most part, quick and easy. With only your screen reader running, you put the provided CD in the drive and are prompted to close all other applications, be sure the Seika is not yet connected, and press the Begin Button. Although the installation process and the user's manual indicate that, when you are instructed to connect the Seika, you will hear two beeps and be prompted with the correct virtual com port for configuration, this did not occur. By consulting the manual (provided in print and on the same CD), I quickly solved this problem. But the virtual com port was not, as promised, forthcoming. It was located easily enough, by going into the computer's device manager, but this small glitch should definitely be addressed to avoid unnecessary aggravation. Another "glitch" that I experienced was that after attempting to install on three computers dozens of times and repeatedly being given a "malfunction" message, I finally concluded that the cable provided was faulty. (Again, it should be noted that this was a test unit and that newly purchased systems will have new cables. In other words, this was a rare difficulty.) Once a properly functioning cable was connected and the appropriate com port configured--Eureka!--two lovely beeps sounded, and the cartoon caption above my head might well have read: "Let there be braille!"
For braille, there was good solid braille, and after multiple power-downs and power-ups, the braille was always at the ready. (When the Seika first powers on, with its two-beep announcement that it is recognized by the computer, the first message on the display reads "thdz 40". It is unclear what this refers to. It is also irrelevant, since as soon as the screen reader is up and running, Seika clearly displays the screen's information.)
Command lists are provided for JAWS, Window-Eyes, Hal, and Virgo. For this review, I used only JAWS and Window-Eyes.
The functions that can be controlled from the Seika are basic navigation and cursor commands, as well as such braille features as toggling between 6- and 8-dot braille, from Grade 2 to untranslated braille, and the display of attributes. A casual review of the command list reveals that with each screen reader, some Seika commands are present that are not available with others. For users of multiple screen readers, it would be convenient if basic navigation commands were consistent. (The Left Control's left and right ends are used to move up or down one line, respectively, in Window-Eyes, while the Right Control key is used for the same purpose in JAWS. In fairness, it should be pointed out that this is the case with many braille displays and that the role of function keys is user definable.
I found the placement of the scrolling buttons on the top of the unit, placed at either end of the braille line, to be extremely convenient. At first, it seemed odd because so many displays have keys for scrolling on the front edge, to be pressed with the thumbs; after I read for a while, however, Seika's placement of these buttons in line with the braille line itself seemed exactly right.
What It Does Not Have
A word about the manual is in order here. Note the discrepancy in measurements listed earlier (measurements in inches and weight in kilograms). These measurements were taken directly from the manual. As I noted earlier, the manual indicates that installation will include a message containing the com port to be used, which it does not. Otherwise, the manual is clear and accurate enough, with the exception of one glaringly absent piece of information. In both the print and electronic versions, you are urged to "contact us" with questions. Yet, nowhere in either documentation format is there a company name, address, phone number, or even e-mail address to make "contacting us" possible. Again, the product is new; presumably, the details will be addressed before widespread marketing occurs.
While some braille displays offer additional keys for braille input or extensive control of the keyboard from the display itself, Seika has only the eight controls that I described. With occasional discrepancies, these controls function exactly as the manual indicates and, for this long-time user of refreshable braille displays, are adequate. What I want from a braille display is the ability to read what is on the screen and to navigate text with convenience. Seika performs excellently in both regards. If, on the other hand, you want the bells and whistles of a braille display that can input braille or act as a notetaker when detached from the computer, Seika is not for you.
The Bottom Line
Perkins has introduced a new kid on the block in the braille display arena that is definitely worthy of notice. Once the installation information is tweaked to provide the necessary virtual com port readily and the occasional key command functions are corrected, it will be a top-notch product. Even in its current configuration, it is a refreshing alternative with good-quality performance at an affordable price.
"The Seika display also supports the Apple Operating system. Furthermore, in the Apple environment, the display is virtually plug and play and does not require the installation of anything extra. In addition, the Seika display supports both the Braille+ and Icon."
Seika Braille Display.
Distributor: Adaptive Technology, a Division of Perkins Products, 102 Bridge Road, Salisbury, MA 01952; phone: 978-462-3817; e-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: www.perkins.org.
Number of braille cells: 40.
Number of cursor-routing buttons: 40.
Number of additional controls: 2 buttons on the top surface and 6 on the front edge.
Size and portability: 4.5.
Quality of braille: 4.5.
Ease of installation: 2.5.
Stability after installation: 4.5.
Response time on power-on: 5.
Response time to commands: 4.0.
Level of screen navigation afforded: 4.5.
Control of screen functions from display: 4.0.
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