In an age of easy access to digital versions of printed content and readily available audio consumption options, it's common to hear braille advocates lament the demise of braille literacy, especially in educational settings. If this year's International Technology and Persons with Disability Conference (CSUN)—held March 23 to March 26 in San Diego, California—was any guide, braille is making a comeback, and users will soon have a number of new hardware options to choose from, in several price ranges.
In the CSUN exhibit hall, it was clear that assistive technology vendors now rely on modern hardware and operating systems as the basis for their accessibility products. We saw many devices based on tablets running Android and Windows 10, providing a combination of accessibility to these mainstream platforms, and clever features of specific interest to people with blindness and low vision. Here is AccessWorld's take on the most interesting products on display at CSUN. Some are available now, while others appeared in prototype form with promised availability later in the year.
Amazon Fire OS 5
Though Amazon's Fire tablets use the accessible Android operating system, their interfaces are far less accessible than stock Android, due to customization and the lockdown of standard Android accessibility features like TalkBack. The brand-new Fire OS 5 operating system changes that, adding an Amazon-built screen reader, called Voice View. With Fire OS 5, all compatible Amazon tablets, as well as the Fire TV, are now accessible to blind users. The Fire OS also includes low vision features, including text magnification. You can read Kindle books, watch Amazon video, and install compatible apps on a Fire tablet, with prices starting as low as $49 (8 GB, with advertising). Pay more to get faster Wi-Fi, stereo speakers, more storage, and better displays. You won't get the full Android experience on a Fire tablet, but the range of Fire tablets offers plenty of options for consuming media from Amazon and elsewhere.
Orbit Reader 20 Braille Display
Among a bundle of braille hardware products that have been in development for years, the Transforming Braille project device has probably been the most anticipated. With the goal of delivering an inexpensive braille display to a wide range of users and markets, the Transforming Braille Group's most recent prototype, the Orbit Reader (named after the company that's building it), was presented in a CSUN session, and was available for hands-on demos in the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) booth. APH, along with Perkins School for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind are the three US organizations participating in the project, and each will have a role in marketing the device, inside or outside the US. Once the device is available, APH will be its retail distributor in the US. Orbit Reader is a 20-cell, 8-dot display and simple notetaker, whose low price is possible due to its unique refreshable cell technology and slimmed-down feature set. There's Bluetooth support, an SD card slot, and a USB port, but no Wi-Fi, for example. The device weighs less than 1 pound, and battery life is listed in the specs as one day of use. An APH spokesperson indicated that actual use could provide nearly a week per charge, depending on how the device is used. APH estimates the US retail price will be around $500, and that it will be available in the fall of 2016.
The new Neo Access NeoBraille Notetaker doesn't skimp on hardware features. The 32-cell, 8-dot Android-based unit sports 3 GB of RAM, 64 GB flash memory, AT&T LTE, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, two USB ports, and a mini-HDMI port. It weighs in at 1.5 pounds, and measures 9.25 by 5.9 by 0.75 inches. It uses the Android 5.1 (Lollipop) operating system, and includes a suite of productivity and entertainment apps created or provided by Neo Access. Because Neo Access cannot guarantee the accessibility of third-party apps, it is not possible to download apps from the Google Play Store onto the NeoBraille. This limitation may be a deal-breaker for advanced users and for those looking for a full-featured Android experience, but it may provide peace of mind in educational environments. The cost is $4,995. NeoBraille is distributed by IRIE-AT in the US.
BrailleNote Touch Notetaker
Like all lovers of technology, blind geeks can be an impatient lot. Many fans of HumanWare's braille devices have wondered why the company hasn't released a new product in awhile. One answer seems to be that the HumanWare folks have been busy building a truly unique device. The BrailleNote Touch is a full-featured notetaker, that not only includes the "brains" of an Android tablet, but its touch screen, too. Like the MBraille app, or Braille Screen Input for iOS, the BrailleNote Touch allows you to enter braille on the touch screen, guided by HumanWare's patent-pending TouchBraille calibration system, which intelligently determines where your fingers are onscreen, and which dot combinations you're trying to make with them. The BrailleNote Touch is 10 inches wide, with braille cells in front, and a 7-inch touchscreen behind the cells. To the left and right of the 7-inch screen are additional touch-sensitive areas available for braille input. If you would rather enter braille with traditional keys, put the notetaker in the included Smart Case, which is topped by buttons that activate the touch surface, when used to enter braille. Like HumanWare's other braille devices, the BrailleNote Touch uses a version of the KeySoft operating environment. Though familiar, the new KeySoft has been rewritten to support the advanced features of the new device. The device features two USB ports, an SD card slot, and HDMI port. There's an 8 MP camera, and a pair of stereo speakers. 802.11g/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a GPS receiver provide connectivity, and the device also includes an accelerometer. HumanWare touts the fact that the BrailleNote Touch is Google Play certified, which means its specifications match those of standard Google-approved tablets. The BrailleNote Touch will be available in May, in 18- and 32-cell configurations, for $3,995, and $5,495, respectively.
Braille to Go
Braille to Go (B2G) from National Braille Press (NBP) is another braille project that has taken a long road to release. The 20-cell, 8-dot braille computer is lightweight (20.3 ounces), and offers a respectable array of connectivity features. Based on Android 4.2 (Jellybean), the B2G can be useD alone or connected to an iOS or Android phone. Hardware features include 802.11g Wi-Fi networking. Bluetooth, USB host, and micro-USB ports, a 5-MP camera for OCR, an SD card slot, stereo microphone, and stereo speakers. NBP estimates that the 5400nMh battery should last one to two days under normal use. A slot provides support for GSM or CDMA wireless radio (not yet available, and sold separately.) The B2G is available now for $2,495.
Canute Electronic Braille Reader
Another entry in the reduced-cost braille sweepstakes is Bristol Braille's Canute, a multi-line device that the developers hope can become a "Kindle for blind people." The Mk8 prototype, available for hands-on demos at CSUN, is about the size of a desktop scanner, and features eight lines of 32 braille cells each. That's 256 cells per page, at a cost estimated by Bristol Braille of $4 per cell. The Canute isn't a braille display, but a reading oriented device to which you add BRF files via USB. The multi-line design makes the device an interesting option for viewing tabular information such as a calendar, or computer code. In development since 2012, the Canute is being produced by Bristol Braille Technology, with testing and other contributions from the Braillists, an independent interest group based in the UK, which takes on a variety of braille-oriented projects. The Canute's software API is already open source, and Bristol Braille says the hardware spec will become available to all, via a CERN license. The company says the first shipping Canute devices will become available to members of the Braillists, later this year.
The variety of braille products on display at CSUN led some showers to lead with the question, "What is it?" Knowing that a device is intended to display braille doesn't quite cut it. In the case of ElBraille, developed by Elita and embraced by Freedom Scientific, it's a Windows 10-based docking station that works with Freedom's Focus 14 braille display and JAWS. ElBraille includes the same Perkins keyboard, along with the other keys found on the Focus, and can be used with the braille display, or on its own. Based on a tablet motherboard, ElBraille has 2 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of internal storage, along with 32 GB of additional built-in storage, reserved for the operating system and supporting files. There's also an SD card slot, and USB port. There's Bluetooth, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, and a slot for a 3G GSM radio. When docked to a Focus 14 display, the ElBraille combo weighs in at 1.6 pounds. You can also use the device, undocked, as a fully functional Windows tablet running JAWS. For information about ElBraille, email Elita. The company says an English-language website will be online soon. Pricing and availability are not yet known, but prototype units are expected to be available this summer.
Dot Smart Watch
It was probably only a matter of time before wearables made their way into the assistive technology world. Many (but not all) mainstream fitness trackers and smart watches lack accessibility features. And, if Dot is right about its smart watch product, plenty of blind users will prefer to have braille on their wrist, along with the expected connectivity to smart phones. Dot's smart watch prototype, which seems a long way from being ready for market, features four six-dot braille cells, and is promoted as a combination fitness tracker and smart watch, with support for iOS and Android phone integration. Dot hopes to sell the watch for $290, and says it intends to ship the product later this year. Dot is currently seeking testers. If you are interested, contact them at Dot Incorporated.
TrySight Mercury Magnifiers
When you think of portable video magnifiers, it's sometimes hard to differentiate one from another. They do the same basic thing and come in a predictable range of sizes. TrySight's Mercury series magnifiers stand out from the crowd because they combine magnification and OCR scanning with a 7- or 10-inch Android tablet that not only provides connectivity to the internet, but also offers a means of customizing the device's interface in ways that add value for users with low vision. The Android-based Mercury magnifiers (there's also a 5.5-inch unit without the OS) lie flat on custom stands. The legs of the 10-inch unit slant at approximately a 45-degree angle, making it easy to write, or move what you're reading, under the unit. TrySight has obscured the Android operating system under its own software, which features speech, as well as large, brightly colored icons for controlling the magnifier and OCR functions. These are not the only Android-based magnifiers on the market, but they are among the smallest, giving them a portability advantage. The Mercury 7 is $995; the Mercury 10 is $2,495.
The CSUN Takeaway
The annual CSUN conference usually provides the best snapshot of what's new in tech products for users with visual impairments. Buyers, rehabilitation agency professionals, and even fellow vendors and distributors use the CSUN exhibit hall and vendor showcase suites as a guide for making decisions in the coming year. This year's event provided perhaps the clearest look at what to expect from assistive technology products in some time, as well as lots of innovation, especially in braille. It's also good to see standard tech hardware, like Android tablets, finding a place in assistive technology, and hopefully putting at least a little downward pressure on retail prices.
Editor's note: Reporting for this story includes contributions from members of theBlind Bargainspodcast team, which produced extensive audio coverage of CSUN 2016.