In the November 2000 issue of AccessWorld (yes, you read that correctly), Jay Leventhal and I evaluated an astonishing new product from a company called HumanWare: The First Accessible Windows-Based Notetaker: A Review of the Braille Note. At the time there was only one notetaking product on the market that offered both speech and braille and this new kid on the block brought a whole new sparkle to the genre. HumanWare has introduced several new iterations of that early BrailleNote in the 20 years since, some dazzling, others not so much. With its rollout of the BrailleNote Touch Plus last year, I wanted to know if this new product, Google approved and multi-featured, compared in any way to the promise and reliability of that first smashing success two decades ago.
Comparing Then and Now
The new BrailleNote Touch Plus is similar in shape and size to its predecessor. Both weigh about two pounds, and the dimensions of the new product,9.5 inches by 6.3 inches, are quite similar to that very first machine. Both use the same case to house either an 18- or 32-cell refreshable braille display, and both offer touch cursors above each cell in either model. There is a Perkins-style keyboard and those popular BrailleNote thumb keys on the front edge of the device. For those not familiar, these four thumb keys are used for moving forward and back while reading text, scrolling through menus, and for countless commands and controls when used in conjunction with other keys and buttons on the Touch Plus. The original BrailleNote boasted connectivity now obsolete and probably not even recognizable to AccessWorld readers younger than 30: serial and parallel interfaces, a PCMCIA slot, and the wow factor of an internal dial-up modem! While quaint and quirky today, those features, particularly the built-in modem, were impressive traits when the BrailleNote began shipping in June 2000.
Today’s BrailleNote Touch Plus has, arguably, the best connectivity and onboard storage options of any product of its kind currently on the market. In addition to the popular USB-C port for charging (USB-C is the connector that can be inserted in either orientation), the Touch Plus also boasts ports for USB flash drives, SD cards, and an HDMI port. Of course, the new HumanWare product also offers features not yet available back in 2000, such as WiFi and Bluetooth, so that you can connect it to the Internet, your email, or your printer without ever inserting a cable.
In addition to the ergonomically friendly thumb keys on the front edge, the Touch Plus has three additional keys dedicated to navigating swiftly back to a main menu, to recently visited applications, or efficient access to contextual help.
The feature that sets the BrailleNote Touch Plus apart from that first generation BrailleNote, as well as its current competitors, is the dazzling addition of a fully interactive touch screen tablet beneath the braille keyboard.
That first BrailleNote and the models that followed were built on a Windows CE platform. The BrailleNote Touch Plus is a Google-certified, Android-based product. In an attractive merging of old and new approaches, the Touch Plus retains most of the Keysoft applications that will be familiar to longtime BrailleNote customers. The familiar word processor and planner (Keyword and KeyPlan) along with others in that original Keysoft suite (introduced before even that first BrailleNote was launched 20 years ago) are still here. Alongside them now, however, are all things Google. Google’s voice assist and the Google Play store are at your fingertips, along with all and any of the apps you might install on any Android product.
Although the Perkins-style keyboard is like an old familiar friend, flip it up and you'll find is the physical feature that makes the Touch Plus stand out: the tablet. You can interact with this tablet as people with visual impairments do with other touch screens, using a combination of gestures, swipes and taps to navigate the screen and execute commands. You can also type braille directly and silently on the glass, eliminating the need for the traditional braille keyboard altogether.
The first thing I noticed when using the BrailleNote Touch Plus is its astonishing speed! Unpacking and getting started, with the guidance of a quick start sheet and the built-in tutorial, was a total breeze. In less than an hour of having opened the box, I was on my wireless network, had set up my email, and was perusing the various Keysoft applications. The text of the user’s guide and the built-in tutorial are available at any time, as is contextual help from within any application. In addition, every unit ships with a comprehensive audio tutorial developed by Mystic Access. The BrailleNote line of products have always been strongly intuitive to use for braille users. The feel of the braille display, the positioning of the thumb keys, and the logic behind so many commands through the Keysoft suite of applications have always provided a positive user experience. But HumanWare’s products, like others in the blindness field, were falling behind with regard to ease and efficiency of connectivity. Taking notes and writing documents are features that have never gone away. But keeping notes and writing documents are simply not enough in today’s environment to warrant carrying another piece of equipment. At work, school, and play, we need quick access to the Internet, to email, and to thousands of applications. Blind people who use braille have long needed a single device that can meet a multitude of connectivity needs in the fashion of a smartphone or tablet, but with high-quality speech and braille. The BrailleNote Touch Plus may be that device. It allows you to write a document, read and write email, do Web searches (by accessing Chrome or using your voice to ask the Google voice assistant), and enjoy a Netflix movie, YouTube video, or album from your music collection, all on the same device. The Touch Plus allows you to set up to ten language profiles, using different languages and/or voices for each if desired and, of course, choose your preferred braille grade for each given situation.
This certainly isn’t the first device that made it possible to read a book in braille and listen to a movie on the same platform, but it is the first one with a built-in visual display for sharing those video experiences. You can turn the visual display off, if you choose, or even keep it hidden beneath the braille keyboard. You can also do all of your typing and manipulating of applications with the tablet alone, always with instant braille access under your fingers.
By the way, I’m usually not a huge fan of typing braille on glass surfaces, preferring the old-school familiarity of physical keys. That said, the Touch Braille application on the Touch Plus required the smallest learning curve of any onscreen braille application I’ve tried. Just place your ten fingers on the glass, wait for the vibration, and begin typing. It was that easy. My first test drive displayed in braille exactly as I intended.
HumanWare has made two dramatic entrances in the field of blindness technology: the first BrailleNote in 2000 and the Victor Reader Stream a few years later. Now, with the BrailleNote Touch Plus, the company has introduced yet another outstanding product. With high-quality speech and braille, you can write documents, do scientific calculations, handle all your social media, watch YouTube clips and binge on Netflix series. You can lean back and ask the Google assistant for the weather forecast or the definition of osmosis. You can share everything you do with a sighted colleague, right there on your own device, or plug in a larger screen to its HDMI port if you want to share with a crowd. You can put on headphones and enjoy your favorite tracks in stereo while reading or writing and, of course, download countless favorite apps from the Google Play store. With the 20th anniversary of that first amazing product approaching, HumanWare has again brought a uniquely robust, yet intuitive product into the arena of blindness technology.
If you want to see a direct comparison between the BrailleNote Touch Plus and its competitor the Braille Sense Polaris, see this article by Jamie Pauls in the July 2019 issue of AccessWorld.
Product: BrailleNote Touch Plus
Price: 32-cell model; $5,695.00; 18-cell model, $4,195.00
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- A Review of the Braille Me Braille Display from Inovision by Scott Davert
- Getting the Job Done with Assistive Technology: It May Be Easier Than You Think by Jamie Pauls
More by this author:
- An Interview with Michael Hingson, CEO of the Do More Foundation
- A Profile of Dr. Daniel Zingaro, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto