Video magnifiers are changing. To see how much they are improving, we have revisited four models that were the subjects of earlier reviews by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). One magnifier, Optelec's ClearView 700, was reviewed in the March 2000 edition of AccessWorld. The other three—Vision Technology's Vision Excel, Pulse Data's Smartview CS, and the Clarity AF SVGA from Clarity Solutions—were first reviewed in AFB's Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. These four video magnifiers were chosen for evaluation because they offer computer compatibility and unique features not seen in other models. They are full-featured color video magnifiers that vary in price from $2,500 with a TV to $3,300 for the basic system, without a TV or computer monitor.
The manufacturers of the four models either have replaced an earlier version, attempted to improve it, or added a new model or models to their product line. But are they really improving? After evaluating these models we found that they are indeed better. The improvements varied for each product and included overall design changes; technical improvements, including the use of more advanced technology; more attention to ease of use and overall usability; and better contrast and resolution. These improvements are indicative of an industry trying to stay competitive. Although none of the full-featured video magnifiers reviewed here can be considered easily affordable by everyone, prices remain about where they were when we first evaluated them. Unlike personal computers, video magnifiers are produced in small quantities and dramatic price reductions are not a likely prospect.
Optelec's ClearView 700
Of the four video magnifiers, the ClearView 700 was evaluated most recently, in the early spring of 2000, when it was new to the market. The review appeared in the March 2000 AccessWorld. The ClearView 700 features several innovations, including wrist rests, a push-button auto-focus feature, and controls mounted on the x-y table. In our initial evaluation, which was performed on a pre-production model, we noted the lack of a platform over the camera on which a TV or computer monitor could be placed. As a consequence, when the x-y table was fully extended the unit had a tendency to tip forward.
Optelec has now included a streamlined monitor platform for the new ClearView 700. With this new design, even if a TV or computer monitor is not placed on the platform, the unit is still very stable. However, information about the new design did not appear in the manual. We had some questions about aspects of the new design, such as the purpose of an immoveable hand crank that is attached to the side of the monitor platform.
Another bug in the earlier ClearView 700 was that the lever that controlled x-y table movement did not work well. The lever now works as it should, offering easy control for locking the x-y table in a stationary position, giving the table full freedom, or limiting it to either side-to-side or back-and-forth movement. Also solved were two problems involving contrast and brightness: less contrast at the bottom of a document and smudginess around black letters on a white background. In addition, we criticized the early model for insufficient contrast for viewing photographs. The new model is noticeably improved with regard to viewing photos but could be better still. We also uncovered a slight distortion problem in the older model when we used the split-screen feature. When we opened a split-screen window for viewing camera images, the image of what was viewed was slightly flattened. This is still the case in the new model.
Optelec has improved the illumination for the ClearView 700's innovative red locator LED dot that shines on the x-y table to help locate where you are on the page. In the early model the light was not visible enough.
"The new stand is a universal stand and the crank is nonfunctional when used to support a TV or monitor. That this information did not appear in the manual was an oversight, and it will be added to Optelec's manuals immediately.
"Optelec continues to work on improving contrast. We are also aware of the slightly flattened image problem in the split screen and are investigating various fixes."
Manufacturer: Optelec USA; phone: 800-828-1056; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: www.optelec.com. Price: $3,295 (monitor not included).
Vision Technology's Freedom Machine
Vision Technology's Freedom Machine is a new model, but it looks very similar to the Vision Excel, which was evaluated in the fall of 1999 and is still on the market. However, the Freedom Machine has new features, a simplified set of controls, is easier to use, and performs better. The biggest change is an auto-focus feature that automatically focuses the video camera on whatever is placed under it. Auto-focus can be turned off, locking the focus at the last setting. The auto-focus also provides a wider field of view and a greater range of magnification, both at the lower and upper limits. The other new feature is a freeze-frame capability, enabling the user to keep an image on the screen and remove the item being viewed from the x-y table.
The older Vision Excel has a variety of types of controls, and it takes practice to learn to use them. The controls on the Freedom Machine are all push buttons, and they are more intuitive.
The push buttons on both video magnifiers provide an audible beep to indicate that the button has been pushed sufficiently to activate the function. In response to the 1999 evaluation, Vision Technology corrected the problem of allowing contrast to be reduced to completely black, thus giving the appearance of being turned off. The Freedom Machine also has improved handling of color and reflective glare in photographs.
Manufacturer: Vision Technology; phone: 800-560-7226; E-mail: email@example.com; Web site: www.freedom-machines.com. Price: $2,495 with 14 inch color TV or $2,795 with 20 inch color TV.
Pulse Data's Smartview Xtra
Unique to Pulse Data's Smartview video magnifiers are on-screen features that are controlled by an external keypad or keyboard. Both the Smartview CS, the computer-compatible model evaluated in the summer of 1999, and the Smartview Xtra, the new version, have the ability to split the screen between the camera and the computer. They both offer an on-screen calculator, calendar, and clock. To enable the split-screen feature in the older Smartview CS requires that the computer's video card be set at a resolution of 640 x 480 and a refresh rate of 60 HZ (standard VGA). Since newer monitors generally require different video card settings, you will likely have to change the settings in the Windows control panel, which can be a hassle. In response to our evaluation of the Smartview CS, Pulse Data promised that the Smartview Xtra would be "plug and play" and that a change in settings would not be necessary.
To test the plug and play feature of the Smartview Xtra we tried each available video card setting on a Gateway 2000 P5-75 with a S3Trio64V video card. We did this for resolution settings from 640 x 480 to 1280 x 1024; refresh rates of 56-90 Hz; and color settings of 16 color, 256 color, and high color (16 bit). Smartview Xtra recognized and worked as intended for all settings except one: resolution of 1152 x 864, refresh rate set at optimal, and color set at 256. At that setting we could not get the split-screen feature to work.
"At a resolution of 1152 x 864 the Xtra will provide a split screen at 60Hz and 75Hz. The 'optimal' setting at which you could not achieve a split screen was likely to be a nonstandard refresh rate and/or greater than 75Hz."
Manufacturer: Pulse Data International; phone: 888-734-8439 or 770-941-7200; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: www.pulsedata.co.nz. Price: $3,195 (monitor not included).
Clarity Solutions CLARITY(AF) Classmate and CLARITY(AF) Travelmate
Clarity Solutions' auto-focus video magnifiers were evaluated in the spring of 1999. In addition to a standard "in-line" system, in which the display is placed on a platform above the camera, Clarity Solutions offers a "flex" system in which the camera is mounted on a positioning arm and the display is placed alongside the material to be viewed. In both configurations the camera housing is fixed to the x-y table, which also serves as the base.
Clarity Solutions' computer-compatible model had a particularly innovative feature—the ability to save an image in the Windows clipboard or as a graphics file. The feature worked well, but installing the software was difficult. This feature is no longer available in the computer-compatible model. However, a new laptop computer option, called CLARITY(AF) Capture-to-Go, does include the image-saving capability.
Clarity Solutions has introduced a "flex system"—new interchangeable modules to address portability and distance viewing. In the CLARITY(AF) Classmate the camera used in the flex system is now available with a moveable lens attachment. The lens is moved into place for near viewing and moved out for distance viewing. Portable display options include a flat-panel LCD display, a laptop computer interface, a head-mounted display, and rechargeable battery pack. If the x-y table is not needed, additional portability can be achieved in the CLARITY(AF) Travelmate. In this configuration the camera can be attached to either a portable stand on rollers or to a flex-type mount that can be attached to the table or desktop with either a clamp or a suction cup. A backpack for carrying the gear is also available.
Three visually impaired high school students tried out the Classmate and the Travelmate for a period of one month in AFB's Product Evaluation Lab and in a simulated classroom setting. Overall, they were very positive about the versatility and effectiveness of the various modules of the Classmate and the Travelmate. But they also reported some frustrations, most of which related to insufficient instructions, especially regarding wiring, hook-up, and assembly. The students also reported that the flex-arm was very effective in all of its configurations but that loosening the joints of the flex-arm was sometimes difficult.
The flat panel LCD display did not offer as much contrast as the students would have liked, but the head-mounted display did and they rated it highly. Their only negative reaction was that it became warm after about 20 minutes of use. Regarding distance viewing, the students compared the Classmate to a handheld telescope. Although the telescope was more convenient, the Classmate was much more effective because it maintains focus on the blackboard, and it offers both negative and positive polarity. Switching the head-mounted display from distance to near-viewing requires a few minutes to remove the display, set the camera for near viewing, and put the display back on.
"We have begun implementing changes to address the recommendations suggested and will have them completed by fall 2000. These changes include a lighter, more portable head-mounted display, improved carrying cases, and simplified connections and instructions."
Manufacturer: Clarity Solutions; phone: 800-575-1456; E-mail: email@example.com; Web site: www.clarityaf.com. Prices: Classmate: $2,345 (monitor not included), Travelmate: $2,445 (monitor not included), Flat panel display (10.4 inch): $995, Head-mounted display: $695, Battery pack: $300, Capture-to-Go (laptop connection): $495.
Tyler Kirk, Eva Ramirez, Bready Rodriguez, and Tu-Anh Vu, high school student interns funded through a grant from the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, assisted with this article.