August 2016 Issue  Volume 17  Number 8

Product Evaluations and Guides

The HumanWare BrailleNote Touch: A Braille Tablet for the 21st Century

Many AccessWorld readers will be old enough to remember the hype that surrounded the dawn of the 21st century-- the phenomenon known as Y2K. For those who don't know what all the fuss was about, all the computers in the world were supposed to stop working properly just because their internal clocks were not programmed to deal with the year 2000 and beyond. Doomsday scenarios were predicted ranging from simple computer glitches to out-of-control nuclear devices. Fortunately, not much happened on January 1, 2000, and most people didn't even realize that the 21st century wouldn't actually come into being until the year 2001. One event that didn't receive much if any attention in the mainstream media in the year 2000 was the birth of a new assistive technology device for blind people known as the BrailleNote. Based on the Windows CE platform, and overlaid with an interface known as KeySoft, the BrailleNote took notetakers for the blind to a whole new level. Students used the BrailleNote in school, and professionals used it in the workplace. PulseData, the New Zealand-based company that developed the BrailleNote, and Humanware, the Canadian-based company that continued its development, worked steadily for years, providing updates to KeySoft, and developing new iterations of the BrailleNote hardware.

Over time, the limitations of the Windows CE environment made it increasingly difficult for Humanware to keep its line of BrailleNote devices current with emerging technologies. As mainstream devices such as iPads and Android tablets became increasingly accessible to blind people, many in the community predicted, and even advocated for the death of the specialized notetaking device for blind people.

As often happens with companies who are working on something really big, Humanware "went dark," not saying much of anything about its plans for the future for quite a long time. That changed, however, at this year's CSUN conference in San Diego, California. Dubbed "The Year of Braille," new braille displays and notetaking devices began to come out of the woodwork, so to speak. One of the companies who had something really big to talk about was Humanware. The company introduced a new device--the BrailleNote Touch--at the conference.

The BrailleNote Touch

BrailleNote Touch is a braille tablet that sports an 18- or 32-cell braille display along with onboard speech. The tablet is Google-certified, meaning, among other things, that any app developer who follows the Google API (Application Program Interface) guidelines will be able to write an app that will work on the BrailleNote Touch. In addition, Humanware has completely redesigned its KeySoft interface to work with the Android 4.4 KitKat operating system. Humanware product manager Greg Stilson points out that 50 percent of Android devices today are running Android 4.4 or earlier, so Google should continue to update this version of its operating system for a long time to come. Also, because KeySoft is such an integral part of BrailleNote Touch, HumanWare's development team needed the most robust API possible, and they felt that Android 4.4 was the best choice at this time. It is possible that the BrailleNote Touch could be updated to a newer version of Android in the future.

The unit measures 0.8 inches in height, is 9.5 inches wide, and is 6.3 inches in depth. It weighs in at 2 pounds, contains a 16 GB internal SD card for firmware and storage that can be transferred from one BrailleNote Touch to another, and sports everything you would expect in a tablet today, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities along with an 8-megapixel camera that has not yet been activated at the time of this writing. BrailleNote Touch also includes an HDMI port that will allow visual information including videos to be sent to a monitor for viewing by a sighted person. Keep in mind that the HDMI port only sends video images and not audio. So a speaker will need to be employed in order to allow others to clearly hear audio being sent from the device. The touch-screen surface of the BrailleNote Touch also contains a visual display that can be turned off when not needed, thereby increasing battery life.

The BrailleNote Touch is charged using a micro USB port that can be plugged into a wall charger, or connected to a computer, and its battery is user-replaceable. In addition to charging the BrailleNote Touch via the computer, it is also possible to transfer files to and from your computer through the USB connection. As with any tablet, the screen of the BrailleNote Touch can be locked when not in use.

Finally, the BrailleNote Touch includes an SD card slot that supports media up to 32 GB in size, stereo speakers and a built-in microphone, along with external jacks for headphone and microphone/line-in inputs.

Typing On the BrailleNote Touch

The BrailleNote Touch ships already placed in a sturdy vinyl and plastic carrying case. The notable feature of this case is the physical Perkins-style braille keyboard that is built into the case itself. The keyboard sits snugly over the glass surface of the tablet, and is magnetically held in place. The keyboard connects to a port on the back of the tablet, allowing anyone who wishes to type using a traditional keyboard to do so effortlessly. Anyone who chooses to rely solely on the apps that have been optimized for KeySoft, and who opts to use only the physical keyboard provided with the BrailleNote Touch may never know or care that they are using an Android device.

Fold the keyboard back, however, and you discover the sort of innovation that Humanware is famous for. Simply rest all ten fingers on the touch screen of the tablet, receive a short vibration letting you know that your fingers have been properly calibrated, and you can immediately start typing using TouchBraille. Humanware suggests that you gently rest your wrists on the front of the braille display, and gently move your fingers up and down on the glass surface of the tablet when typing. Greg Stilson suggests that 20 minutes a day is a good target for really becoming proficient with TouchBraille. Among many of the other "earcons," or notification sounds provided by Google to help a blind person navigate their devices more efficiently, are clicks that alert the typist when a letter has been successfully entered onto the screen. In addition, all the expected feedback including character and word echo are available. As the typist becomes increasingly comfortable using TouchBraille, some or all of these sounds and spoken prompts can be disabled. Stilson uses TouchBraille almost exclusively these days, but finds that sometimes the key click notification can help him make certain that information is being correctly entered on the screen. It is also possible for the typist to leave one hand on the surface of the tablet, while quickly checking their work on the braille display with the other hand. After glancing at the display, it is a simple matter of placing the left hand back on the screen where one can easily recalibrate their hand position and continue typing. In fact, because calibration is so easy, frequent recalibration is recommended in order to minimize the effect of the gradual mis-alignment of hand position that inevitably occurs when typing in braille on any touch-screen surface.

Humanware is working on a case for the BrailleNote Touch that will not include the physical keyboard, for those who are totally comfortable with using TouchBraille, as well as navigating screens in a traditional explore-by-touch method.

Moving Around on the BrailleNote Touch

There are numerous ways to navigate around on the BrailleNote Touch. On the front of the device, at the far left and right ends, are the "Previous" and "Next" buttons. These buttons are used for tasks such as moving through menus. Find the desired item, and simply touch a cursor routing button over the item to activate it. Alternatively, press the enter key using either the physical keyboard or TouchBraille.

To the right of the "Previous" button, and to the left of the "next" button are the left and right panning buttons, respectively. These controls are used to pan the braille display when a block of text doesn't fit on the line of the display.

To the right of the "Previous" panning button is a triangular-shaped "Back" button that allows the user to easily back out of a screen. The round "Home" button found just to the right of the "Back" button takes the user to the main KeySoft menu. To the right of "Home" is a context button that makes many common tasks found in various apps easy to locate.

Familiar commands such as space with dots 1-2-3 to move to the top of a screen, and space with dots 4-5-6 to move to the bottom of a screen are also present, and can be activated using either the physical keyboard or TouchBraille.

Efficiency is as important on the BrailleNote Touch as accessibility, and nowhere is this more evident than in the ability to use first-letter navigation to move around in many apps and Web pages when using the tablet. When in the YouTube app, for example, move to the top of the screen and begin pressing the letter S until you reach the "Search" button. When viewing a Web page using KeyWeb, the BrailleNote Touch's Web browser, press the letter F until you reach the "First name" field of a form you wish to fill out. Also, it is possible to move by various elements on a Web page such as headings, links, and form fields.

It is possible to turn off TouchBraille, and navigate screens using gestures familiar to anyone who has used an Android tablet or smartphone. When in an edit field, TouchBraille turns on automatically, and goes away when you leave the edit field so that you can continue using gestures to move around the screen.

There are many tools included on the BrailleNote Touch intended to make using the device as easy and efficient as possible, not just making content accessible.

Learning to Use the BrailleNote Touch

The BrailleNote Touch comes with an onboard user guide in the form of a Web page that is easily navigated. In addition to the full user guide, context-sensitive help is available from anywhere you happen to be working. Finally, Mystic Access has provided a free and very comprehensive tutorial on using the BrailleNote Touch. It is possible for anyone interested in learning more about the tablet to download the tutorial free of charge either in DAISY or MP3 format. Anyone familiar with any of the other tutorials created by Mystic Access will appreciate the thorough, engaging style that is the hallmark of all of their tutorials.

Reading on the BrailleNote Touch

Anyone familiar with any of Humanware's braille displays will appreciate the high-quality braille present on the BrailleNote Touch. It is possible to turn off speech entirely, and read only using braille, use a combination of braille and speech, or turn off the braille display and use speech only.

The text to speech engine provided by default with the BrailleNote Touch is a variant of the A Capella Heather voice optimized for the BrailleNote Touch. Other voices can be obtained from the Google Play store should you wish to use them.

Apps Optimized for the BrailleNote Touch

There are a number of apps that are optimized for use with the BrailleNote Touch, and make use of the KeySoft product that overlays the Android Kitkat operating system. It is possible to disable KeySoft with a triple-click of the home button if one chooses to use the BrailleNote Touch as a standard Android tablet. Apps optimized for the BrailleNote Touch, and found on the home screen of the device include the following:

  • KeyList is the BrailleNote Touch's contact manager, and performs as expected.
  • KeyMail is the BrailleNote Touch's email program. It is very easy and straightforward to use.
  • KeyWeb is a very robust Internet browser that is optimized for the BrailleNote Touch.
  • KeyWord is a full-featured word processing program that should meet all basic, and some more advanced needs including the most common document formatting tasks. Write in .doc or .docx formats right from KeyWord.
  • KeyPlan is the BrailleNote Touch's calendar app. Set your other devices to recognize the Google calendar, and you can share your calendar items between your BrailleNote Touch and other devices including your iPhone.
  • KeyFiles is a file management program that allows for manipulating files and folders in the standard way that one would expect.
  • KeyCalc is a calculator that takes care of everything from the most basic calculations to the more complex mathematical needs.
  • VictorReader is an app that will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever used the Victor Reader Stream.
  • Play Store allows the user to obtain third-party apps from the Google Play Store.
  • All Applications allows access to all apps currently on the device, including third-party apps.

Third-Party Apps on the BrailleNote Touch

The BrailleNote Touch contains many apps that are designed specifically for blind people, but it also allows the user to take advantage of third-party apps as well, and herein lies a potential pitfall for the user. Humanware has no way to guarantee that all third-party apps will work well with the BrailleNote Touch, and some apps will work better than others. To complicate matters further, if the user allows apps to update automatically, it is possible that an app which works perfectly well today may not work well at all tomorrow. There is no way Humanware can troubleshoot problems with apps not designed by the company, so be aware that your mileage may vary. That said, there are many happy Android users in the blind community, and sites such as Inclusive Android can provide a list of apps that are worth trying.

The Bottom Line

The BrailleNote Touch is a braille tablet that combines the ease of use found in the long line of Humanware's BrailleNote products with the power of a mainstream tablet. Should you need more power than that afforded by the apps that have been optimized for KeySoft, it is possible to use third-party apps including Google Docs that already come preinstalled on the BrailleNote Touch, or obtain apps from the Google Play Store.

I found the setup and update process of the BrailleNote Touch to be a pleasure, and apps update almost daily. I found that I was sometimes able to out-type character input on the screen, using both the physical keyboard and TouchBraille, but I did not need to slow down significantly to avoid this problem. While it is possible to read and write in Unified English Braille (UEB,) there are many times when it is necessary to use computer braille when entering information into the BrailleNote Touch. An example of this is entering Web page addresses. For anyone who is familiar with computer braille, this will not be a problem, but for students who may not learn anything other than UEB, this may present a challenge.

The third-party YouTube app that comes already on the BrailleNote Touch crashed several times for me, and I needed to delete app data to get it working again. Fortunately, this is a painless process using Android. Other third-party apps such as Naturespace worked without a hitch.

I experienced a problem when trying to create an appointment in KeyPlan that ran from 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on the same day. I repeatedly received a message that my end date needed to be later than my start date. I eventually had to create the appointment on my iPhone. I was able to successfully create many appointments in KeyPlan, however.

I found TouchBraille to be an especially impressive feature of the BrailleNote Touch, along with the ability to use first-letter navigation in many apps. The braille on the BrailleNote Touch was crisp, and easy to read, and the BrailleNote Touch's implementation of a Capella Heather was quite satisfactory as well.

The BrailleNote Touch is a 21st-century braille tablet that is currently in its infancy, and has plenty of room to spread its wings and fly. Unfortunately, the $5,495 price tag will keep many from being able to take advantage of the 32-cell version of this impressive product.

The free tutorial that is available for anyone who owns a BrailleNote Touch, or who simply would like to learn more about it, is very well done, and quite comprehensive. It should serve as an excellent training aid for students and teachers alike. The built-in user guide is very well-written, and should be easy to update as the BrailleNote Touch continues to grow.

Many who have enjoyed using Humanware's BrailleNote line of products over the years, and those who wish to harness the power of assistive technology with mainstream products should be quite pleased with the company's latest offering. There is no way to cover all that the BrailleNote Touch has to offer in one article, and just because a feature has not been mentioned here, it would be a mistake to assume that the feature in question does not exist, or will not in future. Be sure to check out Humanware's BrailleNote Touch Frequently Asked Questions page for information not provided in this review.

Product Information

Product: BrailleNote Touch comes in 18 or 32-cell models with a Perkins-style keyboard included.
Company: Humanware
Price: $5,495 for the 32-cell model. Contact Humanware for pricing on the 18-cell model.

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