May 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 2

Product Reviews

A Product for Taking the Blues out of Your Green

In 1999, Orbit Research, a small company in Delaware, developed and released a talking scientific calculator that many blind students and professionals have come to embrace. Based originally on the Texas Instruments TI-34 model and, more recently, on the TI-36, this unit displays and voices every operation and offers a learning mode in which the user can press a key to hear its function without performing an inadvertent calculation. The talking scientific calculator was a success and filled a void, but in the decade since, the company has dedicated itself to identifying and filling a more significant gap.

"We wanted to develop a product that would fill a need of everyone in the [blind and low-vision] community," explained Brian Rao, director of engineering for Orbit Research. Not everyone, in other words, uses a scientific calculator, talking or otherwise. The company searched to identify a need and accompanying solution that would fill a gap in the daily lives of all blind people.

The staff at Orbit Research did their homework. After speaking with scores of blind people, including those affiliated with various organizations, the universal problem that surfaced was the identification of currency. Blind and low-vision people in all walks of life expressed their frustration with not being able to identify, independently, whether a piece of currency was $1 or $100, and the company focused on developing a solution.

"There were three challenges that we wanted to address," Rao explained. Essentially, the product had to be compact and unobtrusive, accurate, and affordable. The iBill meets all three criteria with ease.

When asked if the project was selected in response to the widely publicized lawsuit brought by the American Council of the Blind against the U.S. Treasury Department for its failure to make American currency distinguishable by touch, Rao demurred. "We hear that question a lot," he said, "but we were working on this product long before we ever knew anything about a lawsuit."

What It Looks Like

The first striking feature of the iBill is how small and sturdy it is. Measuring 3 by 1.6 by 0.7 inches, it is about the size of two packs of chewing gum laid side by side (thus smaller than most cell phones). The unit is completely solid with no moving parts. On one long edge is a slot the exact width of the narrow end of a piece of U.S. currency. On either end is a single push button. And that's all there is to it.

The iBill with a ten dollar bill ready to be inserted for identification.

Caption: The iBill

To use the iBill, one inserts the narrow end of a bill into the slot as far as it will go (about an inch). By pressing either button, the denomination of the bill is announced in a clear female voice. The announcement is a single word, "one," "five," "ten," etc., spoken once. With the bill still inserted, you may press a button again, for as many repetitions as desired, and the single word will be repeated. Recognition takes about one second. There are three modes for identifying currency: speech, tones, and vibration. While the speech mode will undoubtedly be the most widely used by customers, the tone and vibration modes are additions that indicate serious planning from the Orbit Research team. Vibration mode renders the device completely accessible to those low-vision or blind individuals who are also deaf or hearing impaired. Similarly, even if your hearing is perfect and you want to identify your money discretely or in a noisy place, the vibration mode makes that easy to do. The tones mode may be preferred by some who have difficulty discerning speech or, again, who prefer more privacy when identifying currency.

It occurred to me that sometimes I might not want others to see me with a stack of bills in one hand and the iBill in the other while I figure out if I have, say, enough money for taxi fare or the right bills to tip the person who is carrying my luggage. With that in mind, I tested the iBill's ability to identify currency while still inside a purse or laptop bag. It worked perfectly.

While in speech mode, the iBill has three volume levels. To cycle through these three levels and then to tone and vibration modes, you simply press and hold a button on one end of the iBill and then press and release the other. It doesn't matter which button you press first. With each combination of holding down one button and then quickly pressing the other, the device cycles through the five positions in this order: speech minimum volume, speech medium volume, speech maximum volume, tone, vibration, and back again to speech minimum volume.

The recognition in tone and vibration modes is delivered via a set number of beeps or pulses. One dollar, for instance, is a single tone or single pulse. A $2 bill is two tones or pulses. Some denominations are identified with a combination of high-low beeps and/or long-short pulses. A $5 bill, for instance, is identified by three high beeps or three short pulses. A $10 bill is identified by one high beep or one long pulse, a $20 bill by two high beeps or two long pulses. A $100 bill is identified by four beeps in a low-high low-high pattern or, in vibration mode, four pulses in a short-long, short-long sequence. No amount up to $100, in other words, takes longer than four beeps, four pulses, or a single word in order to be recognized. Coupled with the rapid recognition, the device is extremely quick and efficient in any of its three modes.

The iBill operates on a single AAA battery, easily replaced by the user. When the battery is low, the iBill emits two beeps after announcing a bill. After doing this for several recognition sessions, it will eventually just quit entirely, although I didn't push it to that point for this article. I used it for about 10 weeks on a daily basis before finally hearing the battery warning.

Returning to the company's original criteria for a moment, the resulting product is clearly compact and unobtrusive. It is also extremely easy to use. The company Website claims 99.9 percent accuracy and I would concur with that claim. I tested it on all denominations from a $1 bill to a $100 bill, including a $2 bill and the newer $5 bill. When the iBill does not recognize a bill, which happens rarely, it says "error." Typically, if the bill is flattened, turned around, or simply inserted a second time, it will be identified correctly.

At $99, it is without doubt the least expensive currency identifier available. The only serious drawback I can see with this out-of-the-blue product is the initial difficulty the company had in meeting buyer demand. At this point, the iBill can be ordered directly from Orbit Research, the National Federation of the Blind, AT Guys, and possibly some other online sources.

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