September 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 5

Product Reviews and Overviews

Vision Free HD Radio: A Radio Designed with the Blind in Mind

How many times, as a person who is blind or has low vision, have you thought to yourself, "If only [product X or Y] would have thought to add a speech chip…or a rotating knob…or buttons you can feel?" As savvy consumers of electronics, we recognize that products that are often unusable by those of us unable to see digital displays could have been remedied if, at the design stage, a few simple, accessible features had been considered.

If asked, most of us could help companies save time and money by letting them know up front which desirable features would render their devices "must-have" products for those of us with limited or no vision.

In 2008, the International Association of Audio Information Services (IAAIS) had such an opportunity when both Dice Electronics and Best Buy approached them to ask, essentially: "What design features would prompt you to recommend a radio to your constituents?" The IAAIS is the organization of professionals working in radio reading service facilities throughout the United States and other countries. These facilities broadcast readings and information via radio signals, cable TV channels, telephone services, and the Internet. Historically, specially tuned radio receivers have been distributed to eligible listeners (i.e., those unable to read conventional print due to visual, physical, or learning disability). The organization represents, in other words, a substantial radio market for the company producing the user-friendliest product.

The IAAIS responded to the challenge by assembling a task force to develop standards for an accessible HD radio. It warrants mentioning here that it was to the task force's dismay that never before had such standards been requested or established for a particular electronic device.

The committee consisted of six people--four blind, two sighted--all of whom are professionals connected with radio reading services and/or IAAIS. For those of us on the committee who happen to be blind, developing the standards was like playing an extraordinary game of pretend, gathering all of those features we loved best on our favorite gadgets over the decades into one list, and combining them into one imaginary product. The Standards for Accessible HD Radios (StAR) project published its findings in a report, which is available for free download from the IAAIS website.

What were the details on our wish list for the perfect radio? I won't go into elaborate detail here, but the standards include common-sense basics, such as buttons easily discerned by touch, knobs that rotate and provide tactile feedback, audio equivalents of onscreen information, and a display with sufficient font size and contrast to be usable to people with low vision.

Although Best Buy wanted guidelines for a long-term strategy, Dice Electronics immediately stepped up to the plate with an already-existing radio that could be rebuilt with access in mind. A prototype of that company's response to the IAAIS StAR report was on display at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and earned a Stevie Wonder Wonder Vision Award for being a product accessible to all.

The Vision Free HD radio from Dice Electronics became available for purchase in June 2010, so the time has come to examine this unique product to see how closely its design meets the standards set forth in the IAAIS Star report.


Based on the Dice Electronics ITR-100, the Vision Free is a tabletop radio, measuring 5.5 by 9.75 by 5.25 inches. All controls are on the front of the unit, and all jacks and the power cord are on the back. It has both AM and FM antennas. Controls on the front include 10 push buttons and two rotating knobs. The radio receives AM; FM; HD 1, 2, and 3; and HD radio reading service signals, where available. It has a clock and an alarm, and up to six AM and six FM stations can be preserved as "presets" for immediate access. Unless otherwise indicated, all accessible features described in this article were drawn directly from the StAR guidelines.

Turn the Radio On

From the moment the radio is turned on, all controls on the Vision Free radio provide audible feedback. The left side of the front panel is the speaker grill, and the right side from left to right includes 10 push buttons, a small rotating knob at the left for volume control, and a much larger rotating knob on the right for seeking stations and making menu selections. The 10 buttons are arranged in four rows, with one button on the top row, two buttons on the second, four on the third, and three on the fourth. Although this may sound somewhat odd from the outset, the rationale behind this arrangement of controls is logical and intuitive. The radio's display is similarly accessible for those with varying levels of vision. It employs an approximately 18-point font and utilizes a light blue against a darker purple background.

The uppermost button on the radio is the power button. When pressed, a clear female voice announces "power on" and the radio is immediately on. If the time has not already been set, a request to "please set the time" immediately follows. Pressed again, the same voice announces "power off" and the radio shuts off.

If an alarm has been set, the time of the alarm set is also announced at power off. The two buttons on the second row are "mode" and "alarm." The first three buttons in the third row and the three in the bottom row are all for station presets. The extra button in row 3, fourth button from the left, stands alone and is a dedicated radio reading service button. If no HD radio reading service signal is available, pressing this button will evoke the announcement "RRS HD not available," letting you know that there is not a digital radio reading service in your area.

Pressing the mode button repeatedly, one hears the following choices: AM, FM, and auxiliary. If AM or FM is pressed, the large rotating knob can be used to seek stations. A discernible click is felt with each turn of the knob, increasing or decreasing by 0.2 MHz per step in FM or 10 kHz per step in AM mode. As each station is located, the radio both announces and displays the frequency and call letters if available. Some HD stations multicast up to three signals. If this is the case, the Vision Free radio's audio feedback announces each of these signals as the seek knob is turned.

Pressing the seek knob will provide an audio and visual station identification. Say, for example, the last station played was 91.7 WVXU. When the radio is turned on again, the announcement "power on" will be followed by the audio information "FM 91.7 WVXU." This particular station is an HD station, so the announcement "HD acquired" will also be heard. To find out if there is a second HD signal available for this station, turning the seek knob one step clockwise will provide the audio and visual information: HD 2 91.7 WVXU.

To preset a station, simply press and hold one of the six preset buttons and the radio will announce that the preset is established. To return to a station later, press and quickly release the assigned preset button and the station will be selected.

The seek knob is also used to set the time and alarm. To set an alarm, for instance, the "alarm" button is pressed and held until a voice prompt is heard to select the alarm mode. Choices are AM, FM, and beep. To hear the choices, the seek knob is slowly turned, with each click announcing one of the three choices. When the desired choice is heard, pressing the seek knob selects it, and the selection is confirmed with both audio and visual feedback. Selecting the hour, minute, and a.m. or p.m. is accomplished in the same way. Turning the knob slowly, one hears one-hour increments, with the number increasing with a clockwise turn and decreasing with a counterclockwise turn. When the desired selection is heard, a press of the seek knob confirms the selection. Audio feedback accompanies every step.

Measuring Up

The sound quality of the Vision Free radio is excellent. With two tiny exceptions, every feature the radio offers was designed in compliance with the StAR guidelines. The guidelines suggest that headphone jacks be placed on the front of a unit for easy access, and that the rotating knobs have an "end point" rather than spinning indefinitely. The headphone jack on this radio is located on the back. It is, however, extremely easy to locate. The volume knob has a definite "end point" at left and right, but the seek knob does not. Because the unit announces the frequency of every station as the seek knob is rotated, however, the "indefinite spin" nature of seek dial is inconsequential.

One bonus feature that does not come from the guidelines and that many users will applaud is the addition of an auxiliary jack. The mode button offers three positions: AM, FM, and auxiliary. When pressed until auxiliary is heard, any MP3 or other sound device can be connected to the auxiliary jack and heard through the Vision Free radio's speaker. In other words, music from your iPod or NLS books from your compatible book device can be enjoyed through the same accessible radio on which you listen to your local radio reading service and other HD radio stations.

Dice Electronics asked, and professionals in the blindness and audio business answered. The result is an accessible radio with great sound, setting an example that we hope other electronics manufacturers will follow.

The Vision Free radio sells for $249. An additional speaker for stereo sound costs $49. For more information, visit the Dice Electronics website or call 888-342-3999.

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