For the January 2013 issue of AccessWorld, I wrote an article called Connecting the Dots: A Brighter Spin on the Future of Braille, which featured the work of the Transforming Braille Group. Leading organizations with a profound interest in the future of braille came together to take a serious look at how refreshable braille could be placed into the hands of more braille readers. Those organizations included:

  • American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
  • Association Valentin Hauy (AVH)
  • Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB)
  • Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
  • National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
  • Norwegian Association for the Blind and Partially Sighted (NABP)
  • Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins)
  • Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)
  • Sightsavers
  • Vision Australia (VA)

The advent of refreshable braille displays over thirty years ago brought more braille to the fingertips of blind people than previously imagined, but the cost of those refreshable braille products remained out of the reach of consumers whose equipment was not funded by employers or educational institutions. At $5,000 or $6,000 per unit, cost has kept refreshable braille out of the hands of many blind individuals.

In 2012, the Transforming Braille Group examined 63 projects aspiring to develop new solutions to refreshable braille. The resulting challenge, then, along with a pooled $1.25 million, was extended by the Transforming Braille Group to the entity that could develop a refreshable braille device that could be sold for less than $500.

Orbit Research accepted that challenge, and the result is the Orbit Reader 20, a 20-cell refreshable braille display that the American Printing House for the Blind hopes to sell by the end of 2016. Recognizing that the product is still being perfected, I was eager to test drive the Orbit Reader and am just as eager to share my findings with AccessWorld readers.

The purpose of the project has been to develop a product that could display files from other sources in braille, such as downloaded books or shared documents, and to interface with other devices and thus act as a "screen" of sorts for accessing the information displayed on a computer, tablet, or smart phone. To do all of that and keep costs below $500, the resulting product is arguably simple when measured beside other braille devices on the market. And yet, it is, in its class of one, remarkably robust.

Description of the Orbit Reader 20

The overall impression of the Orbit Reader 20 is a sleek, smooth, esthetically pleasing piece of technology. Approximately the size of a few of the 14-cell braille displays currently on the market, (six inches wide by four inches deep and about one-inch-high), the Orbit Reader has 20 braille cells and relatively few controls. It sports six keys in the familiar Perkins-style arrangement. These are somewhat smaller than is typical on refreshable braille devices. These keys are oval in shape, and wider than they are long. I found, however, that they were very comfortable for typing and fit fingertips exactly as one would hope. Directly below the six Perkins keys and thus directly above the 20 braille cells is a row of 3 keys. These are, from left to right, the dot 7 key, the space bar, and the dot 8 key. The space bar is a horizontal bar as is traditionally the case. Dots 7 and 8 are ovals, somewhat smaller and smoother than the other 6 braille keys, thus making them tactilely distinctive from the others. Between and slightly above the dots 1 and 4 keys is a four-arrow scroll button with left, right, up, and down arrows and a raised round Select button in the center.

On either end of the braille display is a split vertical bar. These are the left and right panning buttons which are used to move forward and back while reading. This particular design element is especially convenient. Press the bottom half of the right panning bar and the display moves forward one width; press the top half and the display moves to the previous 20 cells. The twin bar on the left end of the display functions in the same way. Finally, on the back edge of the device, occupying less than half the length of the back, are, from left to right, a power switch, SD card slot, and micro USB port.

Refreshing Braille

With a new approach to creating a refreshable braille device comes, not surprisingly, a new feel to how that refreshing occurs. When the Orbit Reader is powered on or off and with each movement of the display, the pins make a distinct sound as they fill the display. The sound is very pleasing and reminded me of an Aztec or African rain stick (the pebble-filled percussion instrument, often made of bamboo, whose sound, when tilted vertically is reminiscent of rain falling.)

The braille itself is crisp and excellent.

Features and Functions of the Orbit Reader 20

In keeping with its name and the purpose of the Transforming Braille Group's proposed outcome, the Orbit Reader 20 is, primarily, a braille reader. That said, there are plenty of functions a reader can perform.

The device has two modes of operation. In Reader mode, it allows the user to read any files loaded onto the inserted SD card. In Remote mode, the Orbit Reader 20, when connected via its USB connectivity, enables the user to read any information generated by a computer running a screen reader (JAWS, Window-Eyes, NVDA, VoiceOver), or when paired via Bluetooth with an iOS or Android tablet or smart phone running VoiceOver or TalkBack.

Orbit Reader 20 does not have onboard storage capacity, translation capabilities, or complex applications to augment its price point or learning curve.

That said, it handles quite a lot of files and enables the braille user to manipulate those files in all the usual ways.

Files are loaded into the Orbit Reader on an SD card, so storage is essentially limited only by the number and size of cards available. What the reader delivers is exactly what it is given.

In other words, if you load an already translated braille file — whether a perfectly formatted .brf file in the form of a book or magazine you have acquired from the NLS BARD or Bookshare, that braille is what you will read on your display. If it is less polished formatting, generated by a low-cost or free braille translation application, that is what you will read on your display. If it is a .doc, .txt, .rtf file, etc., you will read it as uncontracted braille.

Manipulating Files and Editing Text

No matter what we are reading — a paper turned in by a student, a book for pleasure, or a letter a coworker is drafting to send outside the office, reading involves a certain amount of file and text manipulation. The Orbit Reader 20 makes it possible to cut, paste, copy, protect, rename, or delete files. It also offers the user the ability to edit within a file — deleting or inserting text, cutting or copying text, making notes on material being reviewed, and so on.

In a book or other document, you can insert bookmarks and return to them.

Speaking of returning to text, the Orbit Reader 20 always saves your place in a book, so that when you return to a file, you resume where you last exited that file.

Many commands used with the Orbit Reader 20 will be familiar to users of other braille devices. Because there are fewer keys on the Orbit Reader than on some other refreshable braille devices, however, commands are executed by making use of every control and in several combinations.

The Bottom Line

Many braille users have never been fortunate enough to possess a refreshable braille display. The organizations involved in the Transforming Braille Group — as well as many others unable to contribute to the project financially — have long believed that if refreshable braille could be put into the hands of more braille readers, literacy and opportunity in the blind community would significantly increase.

In August 2016, the United States Congress approved the expenditure of library funds (funds allocated to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a division of the Library of Congress) for distributing affordable braille displays to its braille-reading patrons.

While it is not yet certain that NLS will be doing just that — distributing braille displays to braille-reading patrons — or, in fact, that said display will be the Orbit Reader 20, the prospect is a hopeful one indeed.

Most American AccessWorld readers are familiar with the quality of work produced by Orbit Research due to familiarity with its iBill currency identifier and, earlier, its Orion talking scientific calculator. Further, AccessWorld readers in the US and abroad know well the quality of work that is the signature of the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky.

These are the organizations driving the Orbit Reader 20 forward and, to this veteran refreshable braille user, the potential is a mix of promising and exhilarating!

For more information, visit Orbit Research.

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Product Evaluations and Guides