When I first learned of HumanWare's Brailliant BI-14, I wondered if it might be the perfect next level in braille displays that I and many AccessWorld readers have been hoping to see. Promising to be small, lightweight, and compatible with mobile devices and computers, Brailliant BI-14 would also offer a few simple and highly valued applications. It took more than a year to get my hands on it, but the following article is my assessment of how close HumanWare has come to meeting that "next level" expectation.
Out of the Box
The Brailliant BI-14 bears that signature appeal of so many HumanWare products, the appeal of being esthetically pleasing to touch. With a footprint quite similar to that of comparable products in the refreshable braille arena, the Brailliant BI-14 is slim, sleek, and housed in a smooth leather case. As its name makes clear, it features 14 braille cells and 14 accompanying touch cursors. With the unit properly positioned on a table before you, you will find an eight-key Perkins-style keyboard behind those cells and a Space Bar in front of them, closest to you. Between the keys for dot-1 and dot-4 is a joystick that can be moved toward you, away from you, left, or right, as well as pressed downward to execute various commands. On the front edge of the display are the four thumb keys unique to HumanWare's braille products, which facilitate moving forward or back when reviewing text.
On the left side of the unit are a micro USB slot (used for both charging and connecting) and the Power button, marked with a small tactile dot. On the back edge, near the left, is a slide switch with two positions: one for applications, the other for when the unit is being operated as a terminal.
The unit ships with an adjustable strap already connected to it and is protected by a sleek leather case. While the closure for the case is magnetic, hook-and-loop strips have been rather cleverly used to affix the Brailliant to the inside of the case. Note that these strips are completely hidden when the Brailliant is in position, so that they can't snag other items such as clothing.
Also in the box you will find a CD containing somewhat sparse documentation, a braille sheet explaining how to sync the Notes application, a micro USB cable, and an AC adapter.
While the Brailliant BI-14 is braille only, no speech, it does have useful sound and vibration cues. When powering on or off, for example, the unit vibrates and emits a short beep. It also conveniently displays the word "starting" in braille, soon followed by the correct time if powering up in Application mode, or by the word "hello" if powering up in Terminal mode.
As most readers familiar with braille displays will probably recognize, the Brailliant's Applications mode is for when you'd like to use it as a stand-alone device and Terminal mode is for when you are using it as an adjacent terminal or screen for another device such as a smart phone, tablet, or computer.
The Applications mode is what set the Brailliant BI-14 somewhat apart from the outset, so that is where I first focused my attention. When powered on in Applications mode, as mentioned above, it first displays the correct time. By moving the joystick to the right, you will find the following menu items: Notes, Battery, Stopwatch, Connections, Settings, and About. You can select any of these options either by pressing downward on the joystick or tapping the dot-8 or Enter key. The functions provided by most of these options are as you would expect: reporting battery status, activating a stopwatch, and listing available connections.
Again, since it was the Notes feature that drew my attention to this product in the first place, and since the only braille material included in the unit that came to me was information on syncing notes, that is where I began my exploration.
Brailliant Sync, available for free in the Apple Store, must be downloaded in order to sync notes across devices. After downloading Brailliant Sync, you add your Gmail or other accounts to it and, voila, any notes that you write on the Brailliant that you wish to sync are automatically available in your phone's Notes app as well as in your email account. When you first open Notes on the Brailliant, the first choice is Local. As the label suggests, notes written here reside on the Brailliant alone. Navigating the list by moving the joystick to the right, you will find the other accounts you have added. Move the joystick toward you to access the individual notes in a specific location, and then move the joystick left or right to navigate the list of notes.
It took some experimentation to discover the quickest ways to navigate through these options, but in the end, it is very intuitive. You can save a note or exit without saving. And you can save with or without syncing. A word about the Brailliant Sync app: once it was installed and I added my accounts to it, I never needed to touch it again. At this time, this is only available in the Apple Store, although plans are to make it available in Google Play later.
Some customers, of course, are only interested in a braille display of this size for its role as a terminal, to read and navigate the screen of a smart phone, tablet, or laptop. The Brailliant can connect via Bluetooth or USB.
I first paired it with my iPhone 7, and was genuinely impressed. No code to enter and no revisiting the braille device selection. The two were connected in just a few seconds, perhaps the easiest such pairing I have experienced to date.
Connecting to my Windows 10 JAWS 2018 computer took a bit more patience, but once the connection was established, it worked beautifully. As with most braille displays, you can type directly from the Brailliant if desired as well as enter commands from its keyboard and joystick. If the Brailliant has been successfully paired with two devices, such as your computer via USB and your phone via Bluetooth, activity from both devices flashes on the display. If, for example, you are writing a document in Microsoft Word on your laptop, and a text message, phone call, or news notification occurs on your phone, that new information will appear on the Brailliant. While having such information appear on the braille display spontaneously can often be quite useful, it is also sometimes annoying. Returning from one connected device to the other is supposed to occur by accessing the Connections item on the menu. I found this method to be inconsistent at best. Locking the phone, however, achieved the desired result of switching the display's focus back to the computer.
Some Pros and Cons
Navigating screens large and small with a variety of keystrokes—either the Perkins keys as chords, the thumb keys, or the joystick—results in a seamless and pleasant access experience. The ease of taking the display in and out of its case and the fact that its lanyard is attached to the display rather than the case represent simple but very consumer-friendly design decisions. The ability to sync notes across all mobile devices as desired is definitely a big step in the right direction. These notes can only be reviewed once they are saved (moving forward and back by character, word, or line, using key combinations that will be familiar to anyone who has used other braille displays). At this time, not even simple editing commands are available (cut, copy, paste) although I was told such functionality will be incorporated in future upgrades. You can delete characters and delete entire notes, but there is, at this time, no ability to manipulate text in other ways.
Brailliant BI-14 is completely usable by both blind and deaf-blind individuals, since all functions offer vibration feedback. (Vibration can also be turned off for those who do not find it helpful.)
For those with multiple devices, you can connect one USB device and up to five Bluetooth devices simultaneously. You can customize the computer braille language, literary braille language, degree of sound and vibration feedback, and can use the unit in a one-handed mode. After its first full charge, battery life is impressive: 15 to 20 hours after a full charge and, of course, if it is connected to a laptop or other USB device, it is constantly being charged.
The Bottom Line
While some simple text editing capabilities would make the Notes feature even more attractive, the Notes app as it stands is a fabulous addition to a small display that is a top-notch terminal. At $995, this is a tool many braille users with laptops, smart phones, or tablets will want to add to the technology toolkit.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- Focusing on Braille: a Review of the Focus 5th Generation Braille Displays From the VFO Group by Scott Davert
- Keeping It Portable: Comparing Braille Displays on iOS Devices, Part IV by Scott Davert
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