Many braille displays have come and gone over the years. Others, such as the Focus line from the VFO Group, keep evolving to meet the changing needs of the consumer. The original line of Focus displays debuted over 15 years ago and was available in 44, 70, or 84 cells. They used USB or a 9-pin serial cable, had audio in and out jacks, only 3 controls on the front, and were intended for desktop use. The most recent line of Focus displays supports multiple Bluetooth connections, use USB C cables, have a clock and calendar, and support a wider range of technology. This article examines the latest Focus braille displays, the Focus 14 and the Focus 40.
What's In The Box?
Either a Focus 14 or Focus 40 Blue, AC Adapter, USB C cable, plugs for various systems of electricity, both braille and print user manuals, registration card, companion CD, and a carrying case. Unlike all other companies, VFO includes their user manual in braille with the Focus.
The first thing that stands out about the Focus 5th Generation to me is the solid construction. Unlike the previous iteration of Focus displays, the 5th Generation is made of a very solid aluminum that seems like it could withstand quite a bit of rough activity. Not only does it have a stronger housing, there are bumpers on each side of the device to help absorb the impact of a drop.
Orienting the Focus 14 so the series of buttons on the front is closest to you, you will find the following controls from left to right: Left Selector button, Left Rocker bar, Left Panning button, Left Shift button, Right Shift button, Right Panning button, Right Rocker bar, and Right Selector button. The same controls are on the Focus 40, though in a slightly different configuration. From left to right, you have the following: Left Panning button, Left Rocker bar, Left Selector button, Left Shift button, Right Shift button, Right Selector button, Right Rocker bar, and Right Panning button. This layout is the same as that seen on the previous generation of the Focus display.
Along the left side of the Focus, you will find the left bumper. Below that, but almost up against the bumper you will find a Micro SD Card slot, the Power button behind that, with the USB C port furthest away. At this time, the Micro SD card slot will not permit you to do anything with the memory card, but the VFO Group has stated there will be a firmware upgrade in the spring which will include the ability to read and write BRF content. There isn't anything on the right side of the Focus beyond the right bumper. On the surface of the display, the closest thing to you is the Spacebar, which is more pronounced than it was on the previous generation. Behind the Spacebar, you will find 14 or 40 cells of braille, with corresponding Cursor Routing buttons for each cell behind the display. Located at the left and right ends of the display, you have a Left Nav Rocker Bar with a NAV Mode button behind the Nav Bars. Continuing to explore the surface, you have an eight-dot Perkins keyboard, with a Menu button located between dots 1 and 4. The only new control on the surface is the Menu button. All other controls discussed on the front and surface have different functionality depending on the screen reader in use. The newest generation is slightly longer than the previous one, mainly because of the bumpers on either side.
The case for the 5th Generation Focus displays is very well designed. With the fourth generation, the 14-cell display was a challenge to get into the case. With the 5th generation, this is no longer such an issue. The case that came with the 4th Generation of the Focus 40 did not permit access to the controls on the device while it was being carried. The latest line of Focus displays come with cases that are very similar to those made by Executive Products. There is also a zipper pocket on the top of the case, where I was able to store my iPhone 8. The downside to the design of this case is that it can be somewhat of a challenge to plug in the USB C cable while the Focus is in the case. This is because a part of the leather partially covers this port.
Some Things Don't Change
Study Mode, the way in which Status Cells are handled, Diagnostics, and Battery Info Mode are the same as they were in the previous generation of Focus displays. All have a purpose, and those purposes continue to be met equally in the 5th Generation when compared to older models.
New Features and Menu Options
When first powering on the Focus 5th Generation, you will see one of the new features: a clock. On the Focus 40, you will also see the status of the battery and the active connection, if there is one. On the 14, you will see the time, but must pan to the right to see this other information. Once the status line is displayed, you can then go in to the Configuration menu by pressing the Menu button a second time. Once you have entered the Configuration menu, use either Rocker Bar to move through the list of options. Select an option by pressing Enter. The options include: Repeat, Rest, Clock, Calendar, Firmness, Connections, and Language. If you are in an active connection, pressing the Menu button twice will bring you to the Configuration menu. To exit the Configuration menu, press the Left Selector.
The Repeat and Rest options were available in the previous generation of Focus displays, but the rest of the options are new. The Repeat option controls how quickly the Nav Bars will scroll through elements on a screen, and the Rest option controls the duration of time of inactivity that must occur before the Focus goes to sleep. Each of the new functions will be discussed briefly below. For more details on each feature, please see the manual.
Setting both the time and date are explained clearly in the manual. If you are looking for a full application in either the Clock or Calendar, you will not find it. The purpose of the Clock is to allow you to quickly check the time. You may also need to readjust it from time to time, as I noticed the clock starts to fall behind the actual time very slowly. You can also quickly check the date by pressing the Menu button with the letter D. There are no options to set alarms, schedule appointments, etc.
Firmness on the previous line of Focus displays was controlled only by the screen reader. If the screen reader did not have an option to select the dot firmness, it was automatically left at whatever the setting had been previously. JAWS allows the user to customize the dot firmness, but it is now something the user can set within the Configuration menu of the Focus. Again, for specifics on how to configure this setting, please consult the above link.
Connections is another new option which allows the user to delete and configure connections to other devices. The 5th Generation of Focus displays allows up to 5 Bluetooth connections and one USB. This option will let the user choose any already connected devices or give the user the ability to delete connections. The Language option allows the user to put the menu in one of nine different languages.
Connecting to Devices
Addressing each screen reader and its use is beyond the scope of an AccessWorld article; I tried the Focus with every option I had access to. The Focus 5th Generation is compatible with JAWS on Windows, NVDA, BrailleBack on Android, iOS (version 11 or later), and Mac OS. It is not currently compatible with the Fire OS or iOS versions before 11. Once more than one connection is established, the user can jump between the connected devices by holding down the Menu button and then dots 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to jump between the corresponding Bluetooth channels. Menu with dot 8 will put the user on the USB connection. It's very convenient to be able to switch among the connected devices. It would be helpful if, when switching to a channel that has a paired device on it, the Focus could specify which device has been assigned that channel. If the device connected to the Focus on that particular channel is not active, you will only see the Bluetooth name. There is no confirmation that you have switched channels.
Like all previous models of the Focus, the 5th Generation is compatible with JAWS for Windows. Setting up with JAWS 13 and later is simple. Simply plug the Focus in, let the Windows drivers install, and then restart JAWS. You should then begin seeing braille output.
The Focus works extremely well with JAWS, whether you wish to use the braille keyboard as your input method or a QWERTY keyboard. There is an option to lock the braille keys if you plan to use another input method and do not want to worry about bumping the braille keyboard. However, learning the various keyboard combinations can make it so that you do not need access to a QWERTY keyboard at all. Commands exist on the braille keyboard that allow the user to simulate many different key presses on a QWERTY keyboard. For example, pressing the right Shift key with dot 4 will simulate the pressing of the Windows key, while the right Shift key pressed with Spacebar and dot 2 will simulate the pressing of the Applications key. There are commands for just about every key on the QWERTY keyboard, and commands also make it possible to perform modifier key combinations such as dot 4 with dot 8 with Spacebar pressing the Windows key, followed immediately by the letter D to get to your desktop. Other commands function specifically with Microsoft Word and the Navigation Quick Keys, text selection, several JAWS specific functions, and much more. To see a complete list of all of the options available, please see the Braille Display Input Commands guide on the Freedom Scientific website.
Overall, for my personal use, I find the experience of using JAWS with the Focus displays to be a very smooth and efficient process. With a wealth of keyboard command options and the ability to type very quickly in contracted braille accurately, JAWS and the Focus combine for a wonderful braille experience. The VFO group has clearly explained each of the commands and has provided a comprehensive list of all the keyboard commands available.
The process of connecting to NVDA with the Focus requires an additional step. Once you establish a Bluetooth or USB connection with your PC, you must then install the appropriate drivers from the companion CD or download and install the drivers from the Freedom Scientific website. After you have followed the prompts to install the display, you will then need to go into NVDA preferences and select the Focus display. This is also where you set your preferences such as the braille tables, cursor tethering options, and so on. NVDA 2018.1 was used to conduct this evaluation. When typing rapidly in contracted braille, I found that letters were missed. When I rapidly typed this sentence, "Typing in contracted braille is more fun with JAWS," what resulted was: "Typing in like so more fun JAWS." Further development is required to improve rapid contracted braille input support between NVDA and the Focus, though this seems true regardless of the display used. The translator also does not take context into account. For example, if you type a word that you decide to make plural, when you go back and add an s, NVDA will interpret that as the word "so" instead of adding the letter s. I did notice that braille input is more responsive when compared to NVDA 2017.4, and also that contracted braille input no longer freezes occasionally. It is my hope that improvements will continue as NVDA braille input matures.
There are a few options for simulating key presses, but the list of options are much smaller than what is available for JAWS. You can press Spacebar with W to activate the Windows key, but there is no way to, for example, press the Windows key followed by the letter R for the Run Dialog. This is also true of the Alt key. While JAWS can use the Quick Navigation keys on websites, these do not function in braille with NVDA. There are other options to move around documents, and it is possible to simulate Arrow key presses. For more detailed information, consult section 14.1 of the NVDA User Guide under the Help menu, or read it online here.
The Focus 5th Generation displays are only compatible with iOS 11 and later. Connect using the conventional method in Braille Settings. You must enter the pin code 0000 to pair. iOS 11.2.6, which was the latest public release at the time of writing, was used to conduct this evaluation.
iOS makes use of the front controls on the Focus and also allows the user to program their own functions for the different controls. When writing longer documents, or when replying to a large thread of emails, I found that the cursor sometimes behaved erratically. This is not an issue specific to the Focus, but one that is happening with all braille displays when connected to an iOS device.
As the unit I use left the VFO Group before the latest firmware update, I found that chorded commands were a challenge to use on iOS. Pressing the Spacebar in conjunction with a letter would often result in the command not being recognized. If this is happening to you, you should install the latest firmware. As long as you have a computer that can run Windows, you will be able to carry out the firmware update. To verify that your firmware is out of date, consult the above webpage.
If you don't have access to a Windows computer, or if you are uncomfortable performing the firmware update, you can do what I did before I knew of the update. I programmed a bunch of the commands I commonly use to work with dot 7 instead of the spacebar. This means that if you were to ever pick up my iPhone with the Focus connected, dot 7 with H would take you to the Home screen, for example. It would also mean that you are nosey. Other than these points, the Focus works the same way in which most other braille displays do when connected to iOS.
The latest line of Focus displays from the VFO group demonstrates that the company continues to respond to user feedback. My complaints about the 4th Generation were that it broke very easily when handled roughly and that the case was not adequate for portable use, Both of these issues have been addressed in the latest model with the more rugged design and high quality case. Still sporting a battery life of about 20 hours on Bluetooth, the same key mapping and control configuration, the Focus 5th Generation has combined the good points of the previous line of Focus displays with a more modern look and feel.
- Live on the Edge, or Have an Ultra Lifestyle?: An In-depth Review of HIMS and BAUM Braille Displays by Scott Davert
- Keeping It Portable: Comparing Braille Displays on iOS Devices, Part IV by Scott Davert
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