Ever since the introduction of the iPhone 3G and Android devices people who are blind have been on a journey of discovery as they explore the landscape of smartphones and tablets. One bump in the road for many travelers with visual impairments has been typing on devices with touchscreen keyboards. Any blind person who has ever listened to s sighted person type a text message at lightning-fast speed knows that the touchscreen typing experience for the visually impaired community is quite different. Bluetooth keyboards have eased the pain for some, but setting up such a keyboard is not always convenient in settings where one must quickly respond to a message and then put the phone or tablet away. Voice dictation has its unique set of issues as well: a crowded room can make accurate translation from voice to text difficult, and people often do not want to talk to their smart devices when they are in a group of people.

Recently, several apps have been developed to allow people who are blind to use a touchscreen to type in braille. With the release of iOS 8, Apple offered its own solution in the form of built-in braille screen input, which lets you quickly jot down a note, respond to a text message, or answer an e-mail using the touchscreen for typing. Even more significant is the ability to transition from braille screen input back to a more traditional keyboard where text can be easily edited. With the introduction of Apple's braille screen input, is there a need for separate apps to allow for the writing of text in braille? At least one developer thinks so.

Taking a Look At iBrailler Notes

iBrailler Notes by iBrailler LLC is an app designed to allow ten-finger braille entry using an iPad. Placing all ten fingers on the screen calibrates the keyboard for use. If your hands begin to drift from their original position, you can simply recalibrate and keep typing. Thumbs are used for the space key, the left pinky accesses the Backspace key, the right pinky activates the Enter key. A simple flick left or right with one finger moves the cursor one character at a time, a two-finger flick moves by words, a three-finger flick moves by sentences, and a four-finger flick moves by paragraphs. Downward flicks with various finger combinations control the reading of text. You save a note by performing an inward pinch gesture; the text selection menu is accessed through an outward pinch gesture. Drawing half circles counterclockwise and clockwise will move you to the beginning and end of the note, respectively; full circles undo and redo actions.

A restricted version of the app is available for free. A $39.99 in-app purchase is required to access functionality such as saving an unlimited number of notes, exporting your notes to Dropbox, and copying text to the clipboard for use in another application. Finally, the app developer suggests that the user disable the multitasking gestures feature of your iPad when using the app, but this does not appear to be an absolute necessity.

Using iBrailler Notes

I evaluated the free version of iBrailler Notes using a 2014 iPad Air. I did not disable the multitasking gestures setting as mentioned above when testing this app, as I could not see myself actually doing this if I wanted to simply jot down a quick note and then return to normal use of my iPad.

iBrailler Notes runs in landscape mode and opens with a start-up wizard that can be disabled at any time. The application help for this program is quite thorough and easy to follow. I had no difficulty learning the fundamentals. I found calibration of the keyboard to be quite straightforward, and typing in braille was a pleasure. It is possible to type in grade 1, contracted or computer braille. I used contracted braille exclusively for this evaluation. iBrailler Notes runs in conjunction with VoiceOver, and I heard the familiar voice of Alex as I typed. I received quite a start, however, the first time I backspaced over a mistyped character and heard a very loud, high-pitched female voice that I didn't recognize. This happened every time I performed the backspace command. I was used to Apple's implementation of character deletion, which is different from that used by iBrailler.

If I typed the phrase "crazy dog" and realized that I actually meant to type "lazy dog," using Apple's standard keyboard I would place my cursor to the right of the letter "r" and hit the delete button twice. Using iBrailler, it is necessary to move to the letter "a" before backspacing to delete the letters "r" and "c." This was not a problem, but did take some getting used to. I found mastery of the inward pinch gesture to save a note to be quite tricky and took a lot of practice for me; drawing circles on the screen to undo and redo edits was also quite a challenge for me. The developers of the app have deliberately chosen not to make menus visible on the screen so that as much real estate as possible can be devoted to typing on the braille keyboard.

Final Thoughts iBrailler Notes

As stated earlier, I found the experience of typing on the iBrailler Notes keyboard to be quite enjoyable, and I had no trouble recalibrating the keyboard when my fingers drifted from their original position as I typed.

Mastering gestures such as an inward pinch and drawing half circles on the screen was quite difficult, and in some cases, impossible for me to master. The help system is quite good, and I believe that the developers of the app have put quite a bit of thought into its design, although it would be helpful if there were a way to access function menus in a more standard fashion. For example, a double-tap-and-hold gesture might bring up a menu for saving, exporting, and other common actions.

For anyone who frequently uses their iPad and enjoys typing in braille, iBrailler Notes deserves consideration. The $39.99 price tag for the full-featured app definitely gives me pause, as I am quite comfortable with Apple's current implementation of braille screen input. The advantage of a stand-alone app such as iBrailler Notes is that it can be updated quickly, while Apple's braille screen input will be updated only when the operating system itself receives an update. The fact that you can try a free version of iBrailler Notes is definitely a plus. Finally, the loud, high-pitched voice that is heard when backspacing over a character is quite jarring, and should definitely be looked into.

Although I will personally stick with Apple's native braille screen input, I am glad that I took the time to test drive iBrailler Notes, and encourage others to do so as well. Be sure and send feedback to the app developer so that this program can become even better over time.

Product Information

Product: iBrailler Notes
Developer: iBrailler Notes LLC
Available from the iTunes App Store
Price: Free in restricted mode; an in-app purchase of $39.99 unlocks all features.

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Jamie Pauls
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Product Evaluations and Guides