Some of us have been looking for alternatives to desktop video magnifiers for years. They can be expensive, take up a lot of room on your desk, and most models aren’t very portable. Many of us have different tricks we’ve tried with our tablets, phones, Web cameras, and computers to cobble together a video magnifier that is cheaper, more portable, or more flexible, with somewhat limited success.
Without targeting the low vision video magnifier market per se, a document camera manufacturer, IPEVO has developed a model, the VZ-X, that looks like it was developed specifically for use as a low vision device! Imagine for a moment a stand-mounted camera that weighs less than 3 pounds, can connect to virtually any display, and has many of the controls you’d expect to find on a video magnifier built right into the stand.
The VZ-X Stand
The VZ-X is a stand-mounted camera that can connect to an HD monitor, computer, tablet, or phone, using a USB cable (provided), HDMI cable (not provided), or WiFi. Several features immediately stand out about the design of the stand. The stand weighs about 2.6 pounds, and much of the weight is in the circular base. The base is about 4.5 inches across and holds a battery which will power the unit for 9 hours. Because of the weighted base, this stand sits solidly on the desk—no tipping.
The stand is 12.7 inches tall and has an arm that folds out and up with a camera on the end. Everything about the stand feels solid and durable. The camera housing is also jointed so it folds up and down and left to right. The flexibility of the camera makes it very versatile for tasks other than document viewing.
The VZ-X camera is an 8-megapixel HD camera that can also be used for capturing video as well, with a resolution of 3264 x 2448 when connected to the USB cable. The images from the camera are sharp, focus quickly in autofocus, and there is minimal lag time when moving printed text beneath the camera.
Controlling the VZ-X
One of the really unique features of the VZ-X is that at its most basic, it can be plugged into an HD monitor or TV using an HDMI cable, turned on, and used with just the controls on the camera arm. IPEVO offers free downloadable software called Visualizer, available for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, which has additional features, but is not necessary to use the camera.
Nearly all of the basic controls are on the lower arm of the stand, as well as USB and HDMI input. The controls are labeled in high contrast white-on-blue, but in small print. The buttons, however, are each slightly different to the touch, so between their location on the arm and the feel of the button, after a short period of time it's easy to find the right button for the control you want.
Starting at the bottom and going up the stand, users will find the following controls:
- Power button clicks up and down.
- Focus/Auto Focus button is slightly elevated. By default, the focus is set to continuous automatic. A single press of the button will refocus the camera, and a longer press will unlock the continuous auto focus.
- Exp- will decrease the exposure if the image appears too bright.
- Exp+ will increase the exposure if the image appears too dark. (Note that these exposure settings can make a significant difference in image contrast and quality).
- Zoom Out designated with a recessed button. Each push of the button decreases the magnification of the image.
- Zoom In designated with an elevated button. Each push of the button increases the magnification of the image.
- Rotate by 90 degrees with each press of the button.
- Filter, often called the “Mode” on video magnifiers, which changes the foreground and background setting. For example, the image of black text on white paper might be filtered so that the text is white on a black background. (Note that when used with the Visualizer software there are more filter options than those available when using just the hardware controls connected to an HD monitor or TV).
- Light button turns on an LED light in the camera housing.
- Above the light button is an LED indicator light that appears green when the unit is powered on, amber when connected by WiFi, and white when in use and an image is being provided.
- Above the LED light is a small microphone that can be used for other Web camera functions.
- Opposite these controls, on the other side of the stand, are the HDMI and micro-USB inputs, a frequency toggle from 50 Hz to 60 Hz (60 Hz is what is commonly used in the U.S), and a toggle for the input mode, WiFi or USB/HDMI.
- There are two additional controls found on the base of the stand, an Action button and battery indicator button. The Action button works with the visualizer software when connected by WiFi or USB. When connected to an iPad running Visualizer, for example, this will take a picture of the image. When the battery indicator button is pressed, as many as 5 LED indicator lights will shine to indicate remaining battery level.
VZ-X on HDTV or HD Monitor
The simplest way to use the VZ-X is to connect it to an HDTV or HD Monitor using an HDMI cable you’ll need to purchase separately. Use the TV menu to change to HDMI input, connect the VZ-X to the monitor, and turn both on. Place an object or printed text beneath the camera, and it will be projected on the monitor. Use the camera arm to raise and lower the camera on the document or object you’re looking at, and the zoom buttons to get it to a magnification level you want. Cycle through the filters by pressing the filter button to find the right one for you. Be sure to experiment with the exposure buttons to adjust the brightness of the image.
VZ-X Stand Filters
One of the most useful features on the VZ-X, in addition to the screen magnification using the Zoom buttons, is the filter option for images on the screen. Like a standard video magnifier, for many users this may make reading easier by changing the foreground and background colors to eliminate glare and increase contrast. The VZ-X offers several filters to choose from, just using the button on the stand. By default, the initial filter is full color filter when it first comes on, and pressing the filter button will cycle through the following filters:
- inverted color
- yellow foreground on black background (so printed text will appear as yellow text on a black background)
- black and white
- white foreground on a black background
- black foreground on a yellow background
- return to the full color mode
When the VZ-X is connected to a computer, tablet, or phone running the Visualizer software, there are additional filter options through the software. For example, the software contains a filter that changes black text on a white background into red text on a black background.
VZ-X Connected to USB or WiFi
The VZ-X camera will connect to a computer using the USB cable provided or WiFi. Tablets and smartphone connection is primarily WiFi. To connect by WiFi, power on the camera and make sure the input mode button is toggled to WiFi. The camera will then appear in the WiFi options on your device as an open source. During this review, the VZ-X connected quickly to both a Windows PC and iOS iPad.
When connected to the Windows 10 computer, the VZ-X worked with other software, like the Windows Camera App, Office Lens, and even ZoomText. In these apps, the VZ-X worked with the software controls available in the various software applications and the hardware controls on the stand. For example, in the Windows Camera App, there are no software controls for magnification or color filters, but both could be used from the VZ-X’s buttons. With ZoomText, the camera image responded to the built-in ZoomText commands of up and down keyboard arrows to increase and decrease magnification, as well as the VZ-X’s buttons. Just using the Windows Camera app, it was clear how useful this might be for taking notes from a printed document. The magnified camera image of the text could be open in one window while the word processor was open in another, with the user tabbing between the two, without the need for a second monitor, as you might have with a more conventional desktop magnifier setup.
IPEVO Visualizer Software
To take full advantage of all the features of the VZ-X when connected to a computer, tablet, or phone, IPEVO offers a free application, called Visualizer, available for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android.
The Visualizer software is full of features that are useful for low vision video magnification as well as document capture and presentation. Most notable among these features for the low vision user are the Zoom and Filter options that appear on the left as a sidebar menu. With the Zoom button, you can more precisely designate a specific magnification power from 1X-12X. It’s worth noting here that each time the hardware button on the stand is depressed for Zoom In or Zoom Out, it also increases or decreases magnification by 1X, to a maximum of 12X.
As mentioned earlier, the filter options in the Visualizer software are greater than those available through the hardware buttons on the stand. The Filter software button includes 12 modes:
- no filter (full color)
- inverted color
- black and white
- inverted black and white
- white on blue
- yellow on blue
- red on black
Both “sketch” and “outline” appear more as filters that might be used during presentations. Another great feature available on the Mac and Windows version of the Visualizer software is the Masking feature in the Reading Aids. This opens from the icon shaped like a book in the bottom right of the application window. With masking a translucent line can be used to highlight text in a line across the page or all text can be covered on the page except for a line or two. This can be a very helpful feature for some readers that is not always found on more standard video magnifiers.
The Visualizer software also will capture both photo and video images, freeze an image, and add display features like a vertical or horizontal line, or a grid pattern, which may be very helpful for reading on the display. For reading, one of the interesting features observed on the iPad Visualizer was that when the image was magnified, dragging a finger across the screen would move you to other parts of the image. So, the camera could be positioned to include a page or column within the window. The image can be magnified using either the zoom control on the stand or within the software, and then dragging a finger across the iPad screen acted nearly as efficiently as using a standard XY table on a desktop video magnifier to reposition the magnified document.
Text-to-Speech on the VZ-X
Text-to-speech (TTS) is built into the Visualizer software. Take a picture of the document, select the image in the bottom left corner of the application and the image opens with several menu options in the top right corner including TTS. Select the TTS icon (a megaphone over document) and the image opens on the left side of a split screen, with the converted text on the right side, after processing. Press the play button to hear the text read out loud. Text recognition was quite accurate, and processing took only a second or two.
TTS is also available with other applications, using the VZ-X as the camera. In Office Lens, for example, the text recognition was very accurate when converting a page of serif type from an older printed book.
After reading above that the VZ-X buttons are also differentiated with tactile differences, it will come as no surprise to learn that the Visualizer software, at least the version for iOS, worked very well with VoiceOver. One menu button was labeled as “button,” but all the others used during the testing were labeled correctly. Available on the IPEVO website are “Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates” for both the camera and Visualizer software. These are located beneath the Support tab and were assessed by third party vendor, Accessibility Partners, LLC. Both reports demonstrated how hardware and software stacked up to the various accessibility and usability standards. Bravo! Wouldn’t it be great if more manufacturers did this?
VZ-X vs. Desktop Video Magnifier
At $299 retail, the IPEVO VZ-X costs less than most handheld video magnifiers, and far less than standard desktop models. When connected to an HD monitor or HDTV, it has many of the standard features for magnification and color modes you’d expect on a video magnifier. The one notable exception being that you will find some desktop video magnifiers offer screen magnification as much as 70X, while the VZ-X offers a maximum of only 12X.
If most of your reading is from printed book or magazines, you may really miss the XY table that many desktop units come with, but the total flexibility offered with the VZ-X, in terms of the devices it can be used with and the portability, might outweigh that missing feature. The IPEVO VZ-X wasn’t designed as an alternative for a low vision video magnifier, but it packs enough features into both the hardware and software that it really is worth taking a look at if you’re looking for video magnification solutions. The bottom line is that the IPEVO VZ-X is a well-designed, sturdy document scanner with more than enough features to make it a serious contender in the low vision market, at a very reasonable price.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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