Whether you are a person with excellent vision or someone who is totally blind, chances are good that the devices you use in your everyday life are becoming increasingly intelligent. From the phone you keep in your pocket to the tablet in your briefcase, all of our smart devices keep getting new features that make them increasingly difficult to survive without. The same is true for the dedicated notetakers used by blind people all over the planet. Gone are the days when a note-taking device developed for blind people could only run specialized software designed only for that particular device. Today, the blind community expects to be able to use technology that is on par with that of their sighted counterparts. Companies that have long catered to the needs of the blind community are hearing the call and are meeting the challenge of today's technology requirements.
One company that has long been a trusted leader in the blind community is HIMS Inc. For years, the company's BrailleSense notetakers have been seen in offices, schools, and coffee shops all over the world. Whether you live in South Korea—home base for HIMS—or the United States, you might be reading this article on a BrailleSense product right now.
In June of 2017, with its release of the BrailleSense Polaris, HIMS joined a list companies, including Humanware, who now offer braille notetakers that are Google certified and run a fairly new version of the Android operating system. Google certification means that not only does the notetaker contain a suite of software designed by HIMS specifically for the blind, but the device also contains many stock apps from Google including Google Docs, Chrome, Hangouts, and YouTube, just to name a few examples, and more can be downloaded from the Internet.
I recently had the privilege of evaluating the BrailleSense Polaris for AccessWorld. What follows are my impressions of the newest offering from HIMS, Inc.
BraileSense Polaris: What's in the Box and What's Under the Hood?
The BrailleSense Polaris, named for Google's Polaris office suite, is a 32-cell notetaker with a Perkins-style keyboard. When I unboxed my evaluation unit, I found a dedicated AC adapter, meaning that it is possible to plug the unit into AC power without needing to mess with a Micro USB cable and charger. My unit came with an extra battery, which I never needed to use, though I found the process of removing and replacing the battery to be quite easy. The case that came with the unit was lightweight and textured so that I never felt as though I might drop the Polaris. The strap that came with the case was easy to attach, and felt quite comfortable on my shoulder. The front flap of the case is held closed magnetically, so there is no need to fiddle with snaps or Velcro. I did not use the earbuds that were included with the unit, but I suspect they are what one would expect—not high quality by any means, but sufficient to get the task done. One really nice touch, in my opinion, was the inclusion of a braille quick reference guide that listed all of the keystroke commands for the Polaris. I found myself using this reference quite a bit. I did notice some odd formatting issues in the way keystrokes such as F1 were written. Sometimes the letter F was at the end of a line of text, and the number 1 was at the beginning of the next line—something I would have changed if I were preparing the document for brailling.
The BrailleSense Polaris runs on the Android Lollipop 5.1.1 operating system. It contains 64GB of internal storage with 3GB of RAM. It sports a 2.1 GHz Samsung Exynos 7420 processor, and a detachable battery that, according to HIMS, runs for about 18 hours when fully charged with the internal speaker set at mid-volume. Since I tend to keep my devices plugged in any time I am near an outlet, I never ran the battery down during a day's use. The unit's visual display allows a sighted person to read what is on the Polaris' display, and an HDMI port allows the unit to be connected to an external monitor. The unit allows for, among other things, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. The Polaris' sensors include GPS, an accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope.
Finally a 13-megapixel camera allows for tasks such as scanning documents with an application such as KNFB Reader.
Getting a Feel for the BrailleSense Polaris
It's important that any device, whether a new laptop or a dedicated notetaker for the blind, feels good under the hand. I personally like the feel of the Polaris' Perkins style keyboard. The keys were springy under my fingers, and the keyboard was about as quiet as any keyboard of this type can be, in my estimation. To the left and right of the Spacebar are, respectively, Control and Alt keys that can be used in Android apps as needed. Spaced farther left and right of these keys are four function keys. These function keys serve various purposes, only the most common of which I'll mention here. F1 takes you back to the main program menu, while F4 acts as an Escape key. F3 and Spacebar + F3 are Tab and Shift + Tab keys. It is also possible to use Spacebar plus Dots 4 and 5 to act as a Tab key, and Spacebar with Dots 1 and 2 to act as a Shift + Tab command. Finally, on each end of the unit are two capsule-shaped scroll keys that can be set to perform specific actions, such as panning by screen display, line, paragraph, and so forth. I left these keys set at the default mode of panning by screen display. These keys can also be used to move through menus, lists, etc.
The 32 braille cells found on the Polaris were clean and crisp under my fingers, and the device's cursor routing buttons were what I would expect.
Between the braille cells and the cursor routing buttons is a thin touch strip that can be used for flicking and tapping gestures in certain apps. I never personally found a need to use this feature.
The Polaris' LCD display, discussed earlier, takes up the top center of the unit. The sound quality of the Polaris' stereo speakers is quite adequate, and the internal stereo microphones make good recordings as well.
Although I have never used a BrailleSense U2, I am told that many of the Polaris' commands will be familiar to users of that product. More about some of those later.
On the right side of the Polaris is a USB 3.0 rapid data and Micro USB combination port. It is possible to charge the BrailleSense Polaris using the USB port as well as via its dedicated AC adapter.
Behind this port is the Polaris' SD HC card slot. Be aware that, when inserting an SD card, the ridged portion of the card should point up, rather than pointing down as is often the case with other devices.
On the left side of the Polaris, starting at the front, or nearest the user, there are two buttons for raising and lowering the volume of the device. I found that the case of the Polaris made depressing these buttons quite difficult. HIMS says they are working on a redesign of the case that will address this problem.
Behind the volume buttons are a stereo headphone jack and a stereo microphone jack. The stereo headphone jack is to be expected, but I found the inclusion of a stereo microphone/line in jack to be a nice addition. I did not test the microphone jack, but the headphone jack worked as expected.
Finally, farthest back on the left side of the Polaris is a USB host port for connecting USB drives, keyboards, and the like.
On the back right side of the Polaris is the AC adapter mentioned earlier. On the back left side is the HDMI port for sending visual output from the Polaris to a monitor.
Also on the left rear portion of the Polaris is a Kensington lock port that allows the user to physically lock the unit to a desk. I did not test either the HDMI port, or the lock port.
Some of my favorite features of the BrailleSense Polaris can be found on the front panel of the unit. On the far left is a 3-position slide switch that is used to either lock all the keys on the top panel of the unit, or to lock all keys and buttons everywhere on the unit. The third position of the slider unlocks everything. Anyone who has ever carried a notetaker around in a briefcase knows how easy it is to accidentally press buttons. In my opinion, HIMS deserves a lot of credit for adding the ability to lock everything down on their notetakers, rather than requiring the user to power down the device when traveling so as not to accidentally issue commands.
To the right of the lock switch is another 3-position switch used to change the function of the remaining controls on the front panel of the unit. Depending on the position of the switch, these controls can operate the Polaris' media player, operate its DAISY player, or be used to navigate around and perform actions in various apps.
Farther to the right on the front panel of the unit are the buttons mentioned in the previous paragraph. Assuming you are in media mode, the buttons control recording, navigation, and playback of audio. The Stop button has a very discernible dot on it. More about the media player later.
Farthest to the right on the front of the Polaris is the Power button. When the unit first starts up, youll hear the familiar musical chime found on all HIMS notetakers. This sound can be disabled if desired. A quick press of the Power button locks and unlocks the screen of the Polaris. I found this process to be very responsive. As a musician who keeps set lists in braille as I play, I would have no trouble unlocking the screen in a reasonable amount of time if it locked during a performance. The unit's small size (9.66 inches by 5.66 inches by 0.39 inches; 1.65 pounds) would make it quite easy to place on a small stand or table near my keyboard.
Getting Up to Speed with the BrailleSense Polaris
When you first start up the device or after a firmware upgrade, you are presented with a short tutorial and quick start wizard that takes you through various settings including time and date and preferred braille entry. I chose to use Unified English Braille (UEB) on the Polaris and never needed to use any other braille code such as computer braille unless I chose to. This is especially good for someone who only learns one braille code such as UEB.
The BrailleSense Polaris user guide is available from the main menu screen, or it can be downloaded from the Internet. This allowed me to put the user guide on my Braille Edge and read from that device while I was setting up the Polaris. Although the user guide is adequate, it does not teach someone to use the Polaris in the same way that a tutorial such as those produced by Mystic Access do. HIMS has provided some YouTube videos on various aspects of using the Polaris, but both the presenter and the Polaris sound muffled and faint in the videos. This could be a real challenge for anyone who has significant hearing loss.
The BrailleSense Polaris Menu
Pressing F1 at any time takes the BrailleSense Polaris user to its main menu of programs. The Polaris' file manager is quite sufficient to do all of the tasks one would expect including the ability to mark multiple files for manipulation—copying, moving, etc. It is also possible to zip and unzip files, among other more advanced options.
The Polaris' word processor allows one to read TXT, BRF, RTF, PDF, EPUB, and Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. You can save documents in a variety of formats including DOCX, RTF, BRF, and more. It is also possible to insert braille math equations into a document that can be viewed as regular math equations by a sighted person.
I was less impressed with the Polaris' email program. Although I was able to synchronize with my Gmail account using IMAP, I found the time it took for the Polaris to show my list of messages after I had deleted a message to be quite slow. I was not able to delete a message I was reading without backing out of the message itself first. A daily email I receive from my favorite political analyst did not read well, showing a lot of extraneous formatting information; this was the case even when I opened the message in the Polaris' Internet browser.
On a brighter note, my favorite part of using the BrailleSense Polaris was its media player. I enjoyed using the FM radio—one must use the cord from their earbuds as an antenna—and I was able to pick up all the radio stations in my area. I enjoyed making presets of my favorite stations, labeling them with the actual station name rather than just the frequency. I was able to make playlists of my favorite songs that were stored on an SD card, and the media player operated in the background so I could listen to music while performing other tasks on the unit.
The buttons on the front of the Polaris made moving around in media files a breeze. Supported file formats include ac3, asf, asx, m3u, mp2, mp3, mp4, mpa, mpg, ogg, pls, wav, wax, wma, flac, midi, and wmv.
It is also possible to play DAISY content from sources such as Bookshare on the Polaris. From the Extras menu, there is an online DAISY option that allows for downloading of content from CNIB and Vision Australia.
The Organizer includes tools such as a contacts manager and an appointment calendar. I was able to synchronize both the account manager and calendar with my Google account, but I found it less intuitive to quickly browse upcoming appointments than I would have liked.
I found the Polaris' Internet browser to be adequate. While this might not sound like a ringing endorsement, I am not a fan of mobile browsing on any device, although I do more than my fair share of it. That said, I could easily see myself regularly using the Polaris on the Web with speech turned on, although I generally use braille notetakers with braille only. The use of speech at a fairly fast clip would negate any slow response time for me, and there are plenty of options on the Polaris for moving by heading, link, next block of text, and the like.
There are a host of other tools on the Polaris, including a calculator, compass, and stopwatch. One really clever feature of the Polaris that might be easily overlooked is the ability to say "Hey Polaris" from anywhere in the room, and have the unit play a tone so you can locate it. I used this feature for real at least once during my evaluation of the product.
Using Android Apps with the BrailleSense Polaris
For this article, I mostly tested the apps that were specifically designed for the Polaris. Depending on the accessibility of any third-party app either included on the Polaris or downloaded from the Internet, your mileage will vary regardless of what notetaker you use. That said, I did try out Google Docs, with only mild success. When typing in a document, I often found myself thrown into a menu rather than the document I should have been in. Reading documents was more pleasurable. That said, I would prefer to use the Polaris' included word processor anyway.
YouTube was much more enjoyable on the Polaris, and I listened to the HIMS videos on using the Polaris from the unit itself.
The Bottom Line
In my time of evaluating the BrailleSense Polaris, I found the product to be enjoyable to use. If I had previously been a BrailleSense product user, it would have taken me less time to get up and running with the unit than it did. An interactive tutorial would help greatly in this regard.
I found the Samantha TTS voice included on the unit to be quite easy to understand, and very responsive with no stuttering at all. Although there were a few things I wasn't crazy about such as slow performance using email, and a really long firmware upgrade time with not much feedback for part of that experience, I recognize that this product is still quite early in its development cycle. I love the size and portability of the unit. The media player is a pleasure to use, and the specialized suite of software programs included on the unit will meet the needs of student and office professional alike. I especially appreciate the fact that I could use Unified English Braille everywhere on the unit, but I could choose another braille code if I desired. I personally used computer braille in the calculator, although I could have chosen Nemeth braille or UEB math instead.
Those who are fans of HIMS products, and those who are looking for a specialized notetaker running a mainstream operating system and who are able to use accessible mainstream apps should definitely consider taking a look at the BrailleSense Polaris.
- A Review of the Audio Tutorial for the Google Suite of Products by Mystic Access by Bill Holton
- The HumanWare BrailleNote Touch: A Braille Tablet for the 21st Century by Jamie Pauls
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