January 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 1

Access to Braille Technology

2016: The Year of Braille

In the January, 2016 issue of AccessWorld , we took a look at the upcoming transition from English braille to Unified English braille in the United States. This momentous change in the braille code used by millions of blind people across the country coincided with the 207th birthday of Louis Braille, creator of the code. There was quite a bit of discussion as to how the changes in the braille code would affect the blind community, and it was certain to take a few months for everything to fall into place. If these changes to braille were the only things to take place in 2016, there would certainly have been a lot to reflect on when the year drew to a close.

As it turned out, however, the topic of braille would remain in the news for most of the year. At the 31st annual California State University (CSUN) conference, held each year in San Diego, California, an event where accessible technology products are often announced, braille was a major area of discussion--so much so, in fact, that the 2016 CSUN conference was dubbed by many as "the year of braille."

Here at AccessWorld, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the products that were announced during the 2016 CSUN conference, and see which ones actually made it into the hands of the blind community. Some products have been quite successful, and some appear to be just over the horizon. Others have not yet made an appearance as of this writing.

Let's take a look at a few examples.

Braille Tablets Make an Appearance

French company Inside Vision introduced a touch-screen PC tablet running Windows 10 and sporting a 32-cell braille display. Rather than having 32 cursor-routing buttons above each cell of the braille display, the tablet would have a slider that would allow various cells to be acted upon. Rather than sporting a physical Perkins-style 9-key keyboard, divots on the tablet's surface would allow the typist to place their fingers in the proper configuration to type in braille. A regular qwerty keyboard would also be available. In addition to using regular Windows apps, specialized software for tasks such as taking notes would also be included. The tablet would run NVDA, boast 10 hours of battery life, and would soon be available in the United States. The downside to this device was its $7,000 price tag. As of the time of this writing, the tablet does not yet appear to be available in the US.

A product that definitely has made its presence known since its debut at CSUN 2016 is Humanware's BrailleNote Touch. This Google-certified Android tablet also sports a 32-cell braille display and a physical 9-key Perkins-style keyboard. Fold the keyboard back, and you can type in braille on the tablet's touch screen. Humanware's TouchBraille technology allows the typist to almost instantly calibrate the fingers when typing on the touch screen, and this process can be repeated multiple times as needed. A sighted person can view content on the tablet's screen, and an HDMI port allows the device to be plugged into a monitor for easier viewing. Since its release in early summer, Humanware has provided several updates to the BrailleNote Touch's suite of included applications. Today, it is possible for a blind person to type math equations in Nemeth or UEB code while a sighted person views the regular math expressions. In addition to being able to complete standard word processing tasks using the BrailleNote Touch's KeyWord application, it is possible to both read and write in braille using the included KeyBRF application. BrailleNote Touch users are also able to take advantage of the tablet's built-in camera when using the included copy of the ever-popular KNFB Reader program. Finally, in addition to using the BrailleNote Touch as a stand-alone device, it is now possible to use the unit as a braille display with your smartphone or in conjunction with your favorite screen reader.

AccessWorld published an article reviewing the BrailleNote Touch, and I invite you to read the BrailleNote Touch review.

Hybrids Are Hot

Over the past few years, the line between specialized notetakers for the blind and mainstream devices has begun to blur. This was in evidence at CSUN 2016 when the company then known as Freedom Scientific, now VFO, announced a forthcoming product known as ElBraille. In essence, ElBraille is a docking station designed for the company's 14-cell Focus Braille display. It runs a 32-bit version of Windows 10, the latest version of JAWS for Windows, and does not have a visual display. The docking station does, however, contain a Perkins-style keyboard. You can read all the specs here, but a few points are notable. First, the unit promises 20 hours of battery life, and it is possible to take advantage of cellular connectivity. Finally, quoting from this Blind Bargains blog post, "The ElBraille also features a rescue mode button which will launch a menu separate from JAWS that self-voices and has braille output." As of this writing, the ElBraille has not yet been released, and pricing information is not available.

Irie-AT announced a new braille notetaker as well. NeoBraille runs Android 5.1, contains 32 braille cells and uses a Perkins-style keyboard. In a departure from other products of its type, NeoBraille has its own app store, and does not support apps from the Google Play store. The unit is priced at $4,995 and can be ordered here.

Affordable Braille May Be Just Around the Corner

If there is one common denominator for most all of the products discussed thus far, it is a high price point. Unless you have several thousand dollars to spend, or can make a case for having equipment purchased for you, you will most likely only be able to imagine what it would be like to use all of the new products mentioned here. It is hard to imagine that anyone would disagree with the statement that braille needs to become more affordable. At CSUN 2016, the Transforming Braille Group and Orbit Research announced the forthcoming release of the Orbit Reader 20, a braille display that should sell for somewhere around $500 when it is released. Although the Orbit Reader 20 is isn't as high powered as most note-takers and the braille cell refresh time of about 1 second is much slower than is typical of most displays, the lower price point should make it possible for many people who have never owned a braille display before to finally have one in their hands. With increasing concerns about a decline in braille literacy, the Orbit Reader 20 is expected to be a welcome addition to the family of braille displays already in existence. AccessWorld contributing author Deborah Kendrick wrote an excellent review of the Orbit Reader 20 for the October issue of the magazine.

The Bottom Line

We have taken a look at just a few of the products mentioned at the 2016 CSUN conference. What we have seen, though, should give us hope. Companies are working hard to come up with new ways of getting braille into the hands of those who need it most. Rather than trotting out old ideas in a new package, developers are looking for ways to merge modern, mainstream technology with accessible options that increase productivity and efficiency for blind people who use technology every day of their lives.

When the 32nd CSUN Assistive Technology Conference convenes this February 27th, what new products will await us? Will some of the hardware promised in 2016 finally be available in 2017? Will there be new products for us to look at that will change the landscape entirely? Rest assured that AccessWorld will be at CSUN this year, and we will let you know what we find.

Blind Bargains podcast coverage of CSUN 2016, sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind, produced several hours of audio content and blog posts from CSUN 2016. Anyone wishing to learn more about the products discussed here, as well as products not discussed in this article, will find Blind Bargains to be a great resource.

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