In January of 2018, I reviewed the Orbit Reader 20, a low-cost braille display manufactured by Orbit Research. Since that time, another 20-cell braille display at a relatively low cost has entered the market, the Braille Me from Inovision.At the time of publication, at $499 it's the cheapest braille display when purchased from the AT Guys. Though the Orbit Reader originally had a lower price point, it now costs $599 when purchased directly from Orbit Research. Though the main purpose of this article is to review the Braille Me, given that both options are on the market at a similar price point, some direct comparisons will be made between the two devices.
The Braille Me
The Braille Me is a braille display with both Bluetooth and USB connectivity. It is compatible with Windows with NVDA 2017.2 or later, Android when running BrailleBack version 0.95.1 or later, iOS 11.3 and later with VoiceOver and Mac OS High Sierra and later with VoiceOver. It also features basic note-taking functionality, a file manager, a date and time function, twenty-six dot cells of braille, and cursor routing buttons beneath each cell.
What's in the Box
The box you receive should contain 5 items. The Braille Me (already in its case), braille user guide, Standard A to Micro-B USB cable, AC adapter for charging, and an 8GB SD card already inserted into the Braille Me.
After opening the case, which is secured by a hook-and-loop closure, place the device on a flat surface with the braille display being the furthest thing from you on the top. With this orientation, the device is laid out as follows.
On the right side of the unit, the closest thing to you is the round power button. Pressing it for a second should start the Braille Me as long as it has some charge. Behind the power button is a round port into which the included AC adapter plugs. It is a proprietary connector, and the Braille Me manual indicates that the user should only charge the device with the included power supply. Continuing along the right side of the Braille Me, behind the charging port, you will find the Micro USB port. This port is designed only to connect to computers; it is not possible to charge the Braille Me over USB.
On the top surface of the Braille Me, from front to back, you will first find three keys. From left to right, they are: Backspace, Space, and Enter. Note that Backspace and Enter are also referred to as dots 7 and 8 respectively. Behind these three keys, you will find the conventional six-key, Perkins-style keyboard. Behind the keyboard, you will find 20 cursor routing buttons, and behind those, the twenty cells of braille. To the left and right of the display, you will find two trapezoidal buttons at each end. The two on the left side are to jump by line or item depending on context. They are referred to as Left-1 and Left-2. Left-1 is furthest from you, while Left-2 is closest to you. The two on the right pan the braille display forward and backward. Right-1, which is furthest from you, will move the display backward by 20 cells, while Right-2 will pan the display forward by 20 cells.
On the left side of the Braille Me, the only thing present is the SD card slot. Though Inovision includes an 8 GB card, the Braille Me can support cards up to 32 GB. The front and back edges of the Braille Me do not contain anything beyond the plastic enclosure.
Turning the Braille Me over, you will find a braille serial number and also a set of screws that secure the battery door. Though the manual does not specify where a new battery can be ordered, it does indicate that the battery is user replaceable.
The case that the Braille Me comes in is leather and holds the display securely. It does not have any pockets, but covers the surface of the device when closed. It is possible to use this display in its case while on the go, as the case opens to expose the top panel of the unit.
Using the Braille Me
The braille display feels very sharp to the touch and is a pleasure to read on. It is my understanding that this was not always the case with earlier models, but the dots on the latest version seem mostly level and they seem to be functioning just as well as they did when I ordered the device four months ago. Because of the display’s magnetic technology, it is slightly louder than the Orbit Reader. However, the cells on the Braille Me do refresh immediately. I would estimate the noise emitted by the Braille Me to be slightly louder than typing on a laptop.
Different Navigational Commands
Before diving into discussing the menu options, it's important to understand that the way in which you interact with the Braille Me slightly differs from what has become the conventional paradigm for most other braille devices. Typically, Space with Dot 4 will take you to the next item in a list, the next line of a document, etc. With the Braille Me, this functionality is handled by the Up and Down keys on the left side of the unit.
Powering On the Braille Me Can Be Alarming
If you have hearing, after powering up the Braille Me, you will notice a fairly loud beep. Shutting off the device will again cause the beep to sound. While it may not be startling to you, it can be to others. It also seems to be loud enough to disturb those around you when in a quiet environment, or during a meeting. Since this, and perhaps several other features, may be what you want to adjust first, it seems the settings menu is the most logical place to start exploring the Braille Me.
After powering up, you will read "File Manager." This is the first option in the main menu, which will always come up when on the device is turned on. To navigate to the next item, you will need to press the Left-Down button. To activate an item, press Dot 8. Press the Left-Down button until you reach "Settings." After pressing Enter, you will be presented with the settings menu. Navigate using the Left-1 and Left-2 keys. With toggle items, it's important to pay attention to the setting based on what the menu option indicates. For example, "Turn off buzzer" will change to "Turn on buzzer" after pressing Enter to change the settings. Once you have modified a setting, you will need to back out of the menu, even though it is not possible to change the setting further. After adjusting a setting, it would be nice to be returned to the previous menu. Again, to go up one menu level, press Backspace with Spacebar.
Many of the menu options are self-explanatory. Setting language, time, date, autoscroll time, standby time, word wrap, show paragraph indicator, switching panning keys, braille test, factory reset, and software version are the available options. The manual does a good job of explaining each setting and how to modify it accordingly, so I will not spend further time discussing it. The few things of note are that the Braille Me supports 40 languages, paragraph indicators are shown in documents where a new paragraph starts, braille test will test whether all dots are functioning as expected, and word wrap will not cut off words at the end of the display. However, you will need to pan forward more often if this is enabled, as the Braille Me cannot take advantage of every cell.
The File Manager is where you will access all of the content stored on your SD card and the internal notepad, and how you will read books. This utility will also let you copy, delete, move, and create new files or folders. Supported formats include plain text, BRF, and BRL formats. This includes the reading of plain text files in contracted braille. After pressing Enter on the File Manager, you will be presented with a list of the content present on the inserted SD card. Each item in the list of files is assigned a number. The User Manual is loaded on the Braille Me's SD Card, and is inside of a folder. Braille Me will indicate the type of item on which you are focused by a character located next to the number. If the item is a folder, it will be an F. If it's a plain text file, that file format will be represented with a full cell. BRF files are symbolized by the letter L. BRL files are represented by the braille letter X. This will become an important distinction for many who wish to read books for reasons explained below.
Some menus can be accessed through keyboard shortcuts. For example, to activate the "new" submenu, press Spacebar with n while in the File Manager. This will give you options to create new folders, text files, or braille files. When focus is set to a file, pressing dot 8 will open it. Note that you will be prompted to either read or edit the file if this is a text file. Prior to opening a file, you will always be prompted to select an option, though BRF files only support reading mode, while BRL files only support edit mode. In the cases where there is only one option, it would be nice to not have to deal with this prompt. Having an on-board translator to swap between contracted and uncontracted braille can be a big time saver for many people.
The Braille Me supports the reading of plain text files in contracted braille if the user wishes to view the file that way. Within a text file, pressing Spacebar with G will toggle between contracted and uncontracted braille.
Not all files and folders on the SD card will necessarily be displayed on the Braille Me. If you have files in formats other than those listed above or if a file name exceeds 40 characters, you will not see these files in the list. One other limitation to folders is that you can only have 50 files in a folder. BRL files, which are only available to edit, support file sizes up to 100 KB. Plain text and BRF files appear to not have size limits.
Opening and Reading Content
Each type of file you open comes with some limitations based on the mode it is opened in. BRF files, for example, which open in only the Read Mode, will not automatically save bookmarks. If you would like the Braille Me to retain your place in a book, it's important to set your own bookmark before exiting. To set a bookmark, press Spacebar with B. After opening a file in read mode, press Enter with B to pull up a list of bookmarks you have set in your file. You may also wish to delete the already-set bookmark if you are only using it to find where you left off. Pressing Spacebar with D performs this action.
There are various options for scrolling through a book or longer document. While there are commands to jump by paragraph, you can also pan the display 50 times left or right to navigate larger amounts of content more rapidly. Auto-scroll can also be activated and the speed can be controlled. Instructions for using these tools are clearly written in the manual linked above.
Should you have forgotten to set a bookmark after closing a file, if you can recall the exact wording of text, you can use the Find function. Press Spacebar with F, then type whatever you would like to search for followed by the Enter key. Depending on the length of the file, it may take a while to complete this search, as the Braille Me will index all occurrences of your search term. Using a 450 KB BRF file, the Braille Me found nine occurrences of a specific term. This took about fifteen seconds to complete. Once the search has completed, the user is presented with a numbered list of each time the search term was found. You can move through the list of occurrences with the Previous and Next Item buttons. Each result shows the text immediately following the search term, so you can easily determine the location of each. Pressing Enter on any result will immediately jump you to that part of the file. This way of auto-indexing all occurrences of the search term can be inconvenient in some instances. For example, in a book exceeding a thousand pages, it will take quite a long time to index all occurrences of the search term, when you may only want the nearest result. There does not appear to be a way to have the Braille Me only search for the next occurrence of a term. When I searched for a rather unique phrase in an encyclopedia that was in plain text format, the search took approximately two minutes. When I went to navigate the results, the device would only let me see the first match. Pressing Enter on this result may have moved the cursor to that point in the file, but I was not able to read any further, even after giving the Braille Me a minute to catch up. Exiting the file also worked very slowly, but only after conducting this search exercise. Opening the file, reading, and then exiting did not appear to impact the Braille Me’s performance, even with large files. A bug I discovered is that the Find function does not appear to be working with files in the BRL format.
Opening files in their original format is nearly instantaneous. I was able to open a BRF file that was 1.4 megabytes in less than a second. Opening a plain text file that was 1.9 megabytes in size was also done instantly. Reading this file in contracted braille by pressing Spacebar with G translated this large file in under 30 seconds. Once you have translated a file, the Braille Me appears to retain that translation.
Before delving into the Editor, it is worth examining the unique cursor representation on the Braille Me. Since this is a six-dot device instead of an eight-dot one, the standard way of displaying the cursor with dots seven and eight is not available. Inovision has come up with two different ways to represent the cursor that can be easily toggled from one mode to the other when editing. When you are just typing, you will find that the cursor is a blinking full cell located to the right of the last thing you have typed. When you press a cursor routing button, the cursor will then go into one of these modes. The default method shows cursor placement by blinking all of the dots not currently in the up position for that cell. For example, if the cursor is located on the letter X, dots 2 and 5 will blink continuously while the rest of the dots, which make up the letter X, will not blink. You can then toggle to the second mode by pressing Left-1 and Left-2 together. This only shows the cell where the cursor is located, represented by a full cell. In this mode, all commands other than Backspace with Spacebar and hitting other cursor routing buttons are disabled.
Though I was able to type very rapidly using the Braille Me, the keyboard design seems to make it so that I had to be much firmer than with other braille devices. This took a bit of adjustment, but became less of an issue as I grew accustomed to typing with this method. When taking notes in a meeting, I asked those sitting around me if my typing was distracting to them. The answers were consistently that it was slightly noisier than other devices they have observed me using, but that it was easy enough to ignore. I found that the constantly blinking cursor while writing a document became an annoyance to me. You can turn this on or off by pressing Right-1 and Right-2 together.
Before completing your notes, or switching the Braille Me off when not actively taking notes, it's important to save your work. Though you create the name of the file before you can start composing, it will be lost if you turn the Braille Me off without saving your changes. Saving what you have written is achieved by pressing Spacebar with S and confirming that you wish to save what you have written. Confirmation is different than what you may expect, as you can't press Y or N. Instead, you must press Backspace with dot 3 for Yes, or Enter with dot 6 for No. If the Braille Me goes into Standby mode, you will not lose your work. It instantly comes out of Standby mode when a key is pressed. If you require the ability to quickly pick up where you left off, it would seem best to permit the Braille Me to go into Standby mode, as each time the Braille Me is powered on, you will be at the Main Menu and will have to re-open your document.
The Editor also has some capabilities for modifying larger chunks of your work. You can cut, copy, paste, and undo, and you have the ability to mark blocks of content. A unique feature of the Braille Me is that you can switch from another language to English on the fly by pressing Spacebar with E. All of these functions worked well during my evaluation of the Braille Me. The Notepad application is quite basic, but also very reliable.
Connecting the Braille Me to Other Devices
The Braille Me can connect to external devices through Bluetooth or USB, though not all screen readers are supported. Absent from the list of devices other braille displays support are JAWS for Windows and VoiceView for Amazon Kindle. All evaluation done below was carried out using the most current software builds on all devices in early December 2019.
From the Main Menu, press Left-2 to navigate to either Bluetooth or USB depending on how you plan to connect. You will then be prompted to choose your desired screen reader. When choosing USB, it may be worth noting that there is also an option to have the SD Card show up as a drive. This is the way you can transfer content to and from a Mac or PC.
BrailleBack and Android
Using a Samsung S9, I followed the instructions given in the manual and was able to connect successfully to this phone. To use the Braille Me with Android, you must first download and install BrailleBack from the Google Play store Note that the BrailleBack page linked here does not list the Braille Me as a supported device, though there are other braille devices supported that are not included in this documentation as well. It’s also worth noting that the Braille Me will not show up under that name, rather, it will be listed as “smartbeetle.” Though the Smart Beetle only has fourteen cells, the Braille Me is able to use all 20.
Though the Braille Me has a lot of commands available for use with BrailleBack, more than several other models, it still suffers from all of the shortcomings of BrailleBack itself. The biggest challenge, in my view, is the fact that BrailleBack will quite regularly simply quit working. As a person with enough vision or hearing to restart BrailleBack, this can be a minor inconvenience, but for deaf-blind users, this is a major concern with all braille devices running BrailleBack. This isn't a unique challenge to BrailleBack, as iOS suffers the same shortcoming. It’s worth noting as well that not all tablets and phones running Android will function as expected under BrailleBack. This is particularly true when running certain modified versions of the Android operating system. Also of note is the absence of Spacebar with L. In all other devices I have tested with Android, this keyboard shortcut will pull up a list of the supported commands specific to that device. No such equivalent exists for the Braille Me. The only list of commands is available in Section 14.2 of the user manual. Though you can pull up this list on the Braille Me itself, you have to keep going in and out of your connected device to refer to them. Most of these issues are not specific to Braille Me, but seem to be due to the lack of development from Google.
Connecting to NVDA will differ slightly if you are using Windows 7 instead of 8, 8.1, or 10. Regardless of which operating system you are using, you must download the driver and add-on for NVDA. Once you have downloaded the zip file, you will then need to consult the guide within that file for instructions.
Once installed, the Braille Me has a lot of keyboard commands available to use with NVDA. The table in the manual lists 109, which mostly work as advertised. I found that sometimes braille input and output would randomly stop working, though the Braille Me itself did not freeze, nor did NVDA. Pressing keys on my computer’s keyboard worked fine with NVDA, and I was able to exit out of this mode on the Braille Me and restart the connection. This occurred much less frequently than when connected to Android. The other challenge is that when typing rapidly using the Braille Me keyboard, NVDA would slow down and begin missing characters that I had typed. Restarting NVDA solved this issue.
VoiceOver on iOS
The process of connecting the Braille Me to iOS follows the same procedure as other devices. The Braille Me does not require a PIN code for authentication. On all other braille devices for iOS, Spacebar with dot 1 goes to the previous item while Spacebar with dot 4 goes to the next item. These commands have been disabled in the Braille Me, and it's not possible to re-assign the commands within VoiceOver. Instead, you must use the Left-1 and Left-2 keys to navigate to the previous and next items. While I understand having consistency, in this respect, Braille Me only supports its own key mapping, and doesn’t work as expected with other devices it is connected to. Another example of this on iOS is the command Spacebar with K. Under any other device with a Perkins-style keyboard, this launches VoiceOver’s Practice mode. Instead, Braille Me launches its internal help mode. Though these differences can cause a bit of frustration at first, they can be overcome with some adjustment. With VoiceOver Practice, perform a 4-finger double-tap gesture and you will be taken into this mode.
Writing braille functions about as well as any other braille display connected to iOS. The same bug related to the braille cursor disappearing with other displays is present with the Braille Me as well.
Dare to Compare: The Braille Me and the Orbit Reader 20
There are several distinctions we can draw between the Braille Me and the Orbit Reader 20. The first difference is the lower price for the Braille Me. Putting the two devices side-by-side, the most obvious physical difference is the lack of cursor routing buttons on the Orbit Reader. Another difference is that the Orbit Reader does not come with a case. Some people also have a very strong preference as to where the display itself is located on the device. With the Orbit Reader, the display is the closest thing to the user, while the Braille Me has the braille display behind all of the other buttons on its surface.
One major advantage to the Braille Me, if you wish to read a lot of text files, is the onboard braille translation. The Orbit Reader requires that you use an external resource to convert text files to contracted braille. Battery life for both devices is about the same from what I can tell. Both devices also support user-replaceable batteries.
The Orbit Reader, unlike the Braille Me, will reliably save your position in a file regardless of file size or type. The Orbit Reader will also preserve your file changes after being switched off and back on again, unlike the Braille Me. The Orbit Reader can also be updated via an SD card, and does not require Windows. It also supports USB charging, which the Braille Me does not. JAWS and VoiceView are also supported on the Orbit Reader. Further, Orbit Research has a mailing list devoted to information concerning updates to the device, whereas the Braille Me has a general mailing list without any other reliable way to receive news of updates to the product. Significant development also continues with the Orbit Reader, with two significant changes in 2019 that were easy to locate. Orbit Research has become the first manufacturer to support the new HID USB standard which will allow braille displays to be connected in much the same way as other peripherals on supported devices. Further, Orbit Research has recently released The Orbit Chat Communicator a system designed to facilitate face-to-face communication between those who are deaf-blind, and those who are not. Though this newest feature needs some development, it's a clear sign that new features continue to become available.
There are now two braille devices on the assistive technology market that cost less than $700. Though the Orbit Reader costs $100 more than the Braille Me, it has more features and a learning curve that appears to be less steep. If you are more budget conscious, or do not require support for JAWS, the Braille Me is certainly worth serious consideration, especially if you require cursor routing buttons. Overall, the progress toward putting low-cost braille access into the hands of more readers has been tremendous over the past couple of years. I look forward to seeing what manufacturers can do next and to braille access being more readily available as costs fall and innovation rises.
Product: Braille Me
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- BrailleNote Touch Plus or BrailleSense Polaris: Which One Is Right for You? by Jamie Pauls
- The BrailleSense Polaris Mini from HIMS: A Big Product in a Small Package by Jamie Pauls
More by this author:
- An Overview of Braille Support on the Kindle Fire Tablet
- A New Kind Of Braille Watch: A Review Of The Dot Watch 2