Editor's Note: AccessWorld usually refers to products such as the PAC Mate and BrailleNote as PDAs (personal digital assistants) because they include functions that are similar to those found in off-the-shelf PDAs. Since this article discusses both off-the-shelf PDAs and products that are specifically designed for people who are visually impaired, it will differentiate the two by using the term notetaker to refer to the products that are designed specifically for people who are visually impaired.
In march, 2005, at the annual CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, I attended a presentation given by my colleague and friend, JoAnn Becker, originally entitled "Letting Go of Wires." Over the past two and a half years, her original presentation has evolved into one which she recently gave in March, 2007, at this year's CSUN conference renamed "Connecting The Dots."
I liked the latter title, for it provided a vehicle for JoAnn to paint a picture of what the future would hold—that is, individuals who are visually impaired and who rely on a variety of desktop and portable software products, coupled with refreshable braille, would be able to access a variety of applications with a wireless braille display. Unfortunately for JoAnn and for the few of us who have been passionate about this evolving shift in how we access information, when she originally conducted this presentation, there were only alpha-tested prototypes of undeveloped products on which we could demonstrate this concept. And we were faced with a market of people who are visually impaired who happily used their choice of notetaker to complete the set number of tasks that their products allowed them to complete.
A great deal has changed since that presentation was given. Now, three industry leaders have brought to life the concept of using a wireless braille display to access multiple hardware platforms using your choice of portable or desktop screen reader. Now, those who want to move beyond the often-limited scope of notetaking technology can choose among a variety of products that range in price, portability, industrial design, ergonomic comfort, and a number of additional factors that are essential when making an informed purchasing decision.
However, for many of us, a great deal of confusion remains. What is the significance of using a wireless braille display to access a PDA, a SmartPhone, or a laptop? What are the advantages of such an approach to accessing applications, and what are the potential pitfalls? So I thought I would borrow the phrase "connecting the dots" as a title for an article that I hope will serve as a springboard for you, the inquisitive reader, to begin to get many of your questions answered.
We have come a long way over the past 30-plus years in which adaptive technologies have been developed for, and marketed and sold to, people who are visually impaired. Devices like the VersaBraille set the standard for information management through refreshable braille in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This technology gave way to Blazie Engineering's Braille 'n Speak revolution, which affected countless lives through its global notetaking contributions.
Over the past 10 years, manufacturers have produced products that are smaller, more powerful, and, despite the hefty price tag associated with refreshable braille, more affordable than they were in prior decades. I attribute this change to the ever-growing resurgence of the necessity for braille literacy that is often promoted by consumer groups and nonprofit organizations for persons who are visually impaired.
We have also witnessed a revolution in mainstream technologies. Sighted students and professionals who need to be mobile and organized are pushing aside their pens and notepads and are investing in their choice of PDA, SmartPhone, BlackBerry, and the like. I think it is ironic that those of us who are visually impaired began this shift toward portability and organization almost 20 years ago. I attribute this shift to the bulk associated with large quantities of hard-copy braille and the devices that are designed to produce it.
The portable organizers that are designed for sighted consumers cost hundreds of dollars, compared to the thousands of dollars for those that are designed for consumers who are blind, and are replaced by newer, faster, more powerful alternatives within four to six months of their initial release. As the performance of these less expensive devices improves, the devices not only begin to mirror the tasks and functionality of inexpensive, proprietary notetaking solutions, but surpass them in their ability to keep pace with those of Fortune 500 companies that invest millions of dollars on new and exciting development efforts.
In short, manufacturers of today's notetakers are faced with the arduous task of meeting the needs of visually impaired consumers who are beginning to demand access to the types of applications and solutions that are available to their sighted family members, friends, and colleagues. An alternative that the three manufacturers that are highlighted in this article have chosen to exercise is to shift from developing software solutions on proprietary hardware platforms to developing much sleeker braille-output devices that are designed to connect to PCs via Bluetooth or USB connections, as well as to PDAs and cellular phones through a Bluetooth connection. The end result is that through the use of either a desktop or a portable Windows-based screen reader, consumers who are visually impaired are able to access many of these devices and applications through synthetic speech and refreshable braille access. Often, these manufacturers work with screen-reader providers to develop a user interface that mirrors many of the commands that exist in many of today's notetakers. Let's face it, today's refreshable braille solutions have borrowed from many of the concepts that are present in devices that were developed more than 20 years ago, and there is nothing wrong with that. We are fortunate to have had a rich history with lots of talented people who have contributed to user interfaces that make sense to those who are visually impaired.
The remainder of this article gives you a snapshot of Handy Tech, Baum, and Optelec, the three hardware manufacturers that are providing palatable alternatives to access today's mainstream portable and desktop solutions. I provide a brief overview of each company's current product offerings and the philosophy that has driven the development of the products. I also provide information on the North American distributors of these three product lines.
Handy Tech: A Company of "Firsts"
Handy Tech is located in Horb, Germany, and has sales offices throughout Germany, as well as in the United States. Its commitment to software development know-how packaged in a rugged design has netted Handy Tech a number of international federal contracts. More notably in the United States, Handy Tech's Braille Star is the braille display of choice by the Internal Revenue Service.
Handy Tech produces a variety of devices, including Modular Evolution, Easy Braille, Braille Star, and Braillino. These displays share a number of similarities and tout as many differences, so that Handy Tech can serve a variety of customers. First, all these displays embody Handy Tech's concave braille cells that individuals seem to either love or despise. Regardless, Handy Tech has branded this similarity throughout its product line.
Handy Tech's Braille Star was the first braille display to offer Bluetooth connectivity to a PC. This display also has limited onboard memory for storing ASCII data that you can create from within the Braille Star's "scratch pad" and then transfer to a PC at a later time. Users may also download information from a PC to the Braille Star. Easy Braille lacks this internal memory, but offers a sleeker design with ergonomic braille entry keys located in front of the braille display; it also costs approximately $1,000 less than the Braille Star. The Modular Evolution enables the braille user to receive speech output as a secondary medium as fingers skim across the braille display—an intriguing feature to be sure, but a costly one. Finally, Handy Tech's Braillino is a 20-cell notetaker with serial and Bluetooth connection options that are designed to connect to a PC or an accessible cellular phone or PDA. Different braille-display lengths equal different price points, ranging from $3,995 to $12,000. For more information about these products, visit <www.handytech.de/en/normal/welcome/introduction/index.html?no_cache=1>.
In North America, Handy Tech distributes its products through its own sales office, Handy Tech North America <www.handytech.us>, headed by Earle Harrison. This distribution outlet markets, sells, services, and repairs all Handy Tech products and provides complete mobile and desktop solutions.
Baum: Setting Standards for Portability
Located in Wiesenbach, Germany, Baum boasts a rich history of innovation in its product design. It also produces a variety of braille-display lengths, offering the customer price points in line with the braille-display length that is purchased. In 2006, Baum released Conny, renamed BrailleConnect 12 in English-speaking countries, becoming the first company to launch a 12-cell braille display with the ability to write either 6- or 8-dot braille to a mobile device. BrailleConnect 12 has only a Bluetooth connection option, and while one can establish a connection with a PC via a Bluetooth link, it is designed to serve the needs of the cellular phone or PDA user. There is no onboard intelligence in this device. Baum's Pocket Vario 32- and 40-cell displays were renamed BrailleConnect 32 and BrailleConnect 40 in English-speaking countries. They offer a secondary USB option, as well as Bluetooth connectivity. Some may remember the launch of Brailliant in the United States three years ago. To be fair, Baum did bring the predecessor to BrailleConnect to market close on the heels of Handy Tech's Braille Star Bluetooth option. It should be noted that the primary difference between Brailliant and BrailleConnect is that BrailleConnect offers braille input keys directly behind the touch cursors of the braille display, while the Brailliant does not. For more information about these products, visit <www.baum.de/index-e.php>.
HumanWare is the exclusive distributor of most of Baum's product line in English-speaking countries, and Baum has renamed its products to meet HumanWare's specifications. HumanWare distributes these products through its distribution network. In the United States, salespeople are equipped with a minimum of one demonstration unit each, but the procurement of demonstration equipment is not mandatory for its authorized resellers. HumanWare services these displays in the countries where they are sold.
The Baum product line, coupled with HumanWare's distribution of Mobile Speak Pocket, offers HumanWare a fresh, alternative perspective for its sales and marketing efforts. However, the fact remains that HumanWare is extremely committed to KeySoft, a proprietary suite of applications that juxtaposes the product philosophy of BrailleConnect, but is also found on another Baum-manufactured product, the BrailleNote PK. Only time will tell how such an innovative approach to information access will be positioned against a product line that is HumanWare's current "bread and butter."
Optelec: A Possible "Dark Horse" in the Wireless Access Race
Optelec BV, a Netherlands-based holding company with sales offices on three continents, purchased the assets of its bankrupt Dutch competitor, ALVA BV, in September 2005. In doing so, it acquired a great deal of intellectual property and sales and development know-how. Optelec is the last horse to enter the wireless race, and at this year's summer conventions, it unveiled the ALVA Braille Controller, a product that made its industry debut more than a year ago.
The ALVA Braille Controller is probably the most feature-rich of all the products mentioned in this article. It has lots of buttons that can be mapped for use with a PDA or smartphone, along with traditional thumb keys that are synonymous with ALVA's historic utilization of such keys. It is interesting that the touch cursors are located below the braille display to save space. An optional "feature pack" can be ordered and attached to the display by VisionCue, the North American importer of Optelec's Blindness Products line. This feature pack enables you to enter braille either through a wireless or Bluetooth connection to a PC or accessible cellular phone or PDA. You may also select optional speech-output services through the Braille Controller's Bluetooth connection, which enables the speech of the PC, cellular phone, or PDA to be routed through the speakers at either end of the feature pack. The unit has 2 gigabytes of system memory, where, when connected to a PC via USB, files can be copied to the device as if it were a USB drive. This feature presents customers with the opportunity to take advantage of products like Serotek's System Access screen reader, which promises braille support by late fall 2007. Imagine being able to connect your braille display to a PC and host a screen-reading session on a computer that does not have a screen reader installed on its hard drive.
At this year's convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), I witnessed the ALVA Braille Controller maintain its Bluetooth Connection to a PC while its product manager walked a minimum of 250 feet across the exhibit hall with the Braille Controller in hand. This demonstration was impressive, to say the least.
But is this a matter of "too much, too late"? Without a doubt, the Alva Braille Controller is the most feature-packed wireless braille product to be introduced in quite some time. But Optelec is faced with the daunting challenge of playing catch-up with two competitors that have had products in the hands of key users for the past couple of years, and the fruits of these competitors' labors are beginning to pay off. It will be interesting to follow the progress of this product's success in the United States, which is riding heavily on the successful marketing and sales of the feature pack, which, in a sense, transforms the ALVA Braille Controller into a wireless notetaker with state-of-the-art Bluetooth capabilities, internal storage for system files, and additional storage for onboard memory, comparable to Handy Tech's Braille Star.
VisionCue is headed by Larry Lake, who was managing director of the U.S.-based ALVA Access Group. Lake has successfully steered the continual sales and support of the ALVA Satellite through some lean times and has a sufficient understanding of what he needs to do to take Optelec to the next level in its attempts to make continued in-roads into the competitive U.S. market. For more information about VisionCue and ALVA Braille Controller, visit <www.visioncue.com>.
With the emergence of the wireless braille concept discussed here, I am confident that over the next couple of years, the three manufacturers will have plenty of opportunities to market, sell, and further develop the products that they are providing to people who are visually impaired. Organizations, such as the NFB, Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the American Foundation for the Blind, have stressed issues that are related to braille literacy and competitive employment for people who are visually impaired. As employers continue to be forced to make decisions about hiring employees who are blind or have low vision, opportunities will soon give way to job responsibilities that will need to be carried out by users of cutting-edge solutions that can keep pace with a dynamic mainstream technological market, rather than play catch-up to it.
It is an exciting time. I count myself fortunate to have accessed the Windows Mobile 6 operating system within a week of Microsoft's release of it on a smartphone, using my wireless braille display, rather than wait months for a much larger notetaking alternative to offer me potentially the same access in a hardware configuration that simply does not work for me. Accessing this operating system enabled me to have wireless, tactile access to the soft keys on my smartphone through my braille display. This means that while my smartphone is in my pocket, I can activate these soft keys with the click of a routing button on my wireless braille display and quickly access either the Start menu or contacts from the Today screen. I can also review missed calls, text messages, the daily news, and other application-specific information that is vital to me without the need for speech output or the need to press any buttons on my smartphone. Of course, if I want to do so without the use of my braille display, I can use synthetic speech. I can review the contents of slides through PowerPoint Mobile, an application that is growing in popularity and usage on high school and college campuses, as well as in the workplace. I can review and edit Pocket Excel spreadsheets using my preferred grade of braille, and I have not been afraid of losing important data on my mainstream hardware for more than a year.
I could access all that Windows Mobile 6 has to offer as early as the second week of June, and this does not account for any preliminary beta-testing of Code Factory's latest Mobile Speak offerings. During this year's 2007 national consumer conventions in July, I listened to a manufacturer of a proprietary notetaker promise me all the aforementioned access as early as fall 2007, provided that I invest thousands of dollars in a hardware configuration that was designed in 2003. I was also regaled with promises by another manufacturer of its upcoming software upgrade, the first software upgrade release in a year. This upgrade guarantees users that if they synchronize their Microsoft Outlook contacts and calendar with this device, no data will be lost. It also guarantees that users will be able to use more than one or two USB flash drives and wireless Ethernet cards, which have a habit of becoming obsolete within a matter of months. This upgrade boasts the ability to support the usage of Play Lists within its Media Player, a feature that has been available for years on mainstream hardware.
I have been using Mobile screen readers regularly for more than 3.5 years, and the money that I have invested in three different Mobile devices and corresponding screen readers is less than $1,500. During the same period, notetaker manufacturers have charged thousands of dollars for upgrades for products that are now in need of major facelifts. My wireless braille display interacts well with the Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Windows Smartphone Mobile Operating systems, giving me incomparable flexibility and access to various iterations of countless mainstream applications that my sighted family members, friends, and colleagues also access. I am also confident that I will be prepared for Microsoft's next product offerings because I have adopted this modular approach to Mobile Access into my day-to-day usage of adaptive technologies.
And now to answer two final questions that the reader will undoubtedly ask. First, is this technology for you? I will answer that question with a question: How do you use technology, and how do you want to use technology? If you have money to spend, are content to have a self-contained notetaking solution, and your goal is productivity within a determined suite of applications and a specific operating system for the sake of convenience, then stick with a BrailleNote, Braille Sense, or a PAC Mate. If you are willing to deal with the steps required and occasional inconveniences associated with wirelessly connecting two devices, but your goals are to interact and share data with sighted colleagues and friends while taking advantage of the most current applications present on mainstream devices, then explore the purchase of one of these braille displays. It should be noted that like any new technology that is introduced, there are still growing pains associated with all aspects of this wireless braille paradigm. Bluetooth connectivity is not the most intuitive for anyone, whether one is sighted, has low vision, or is blind. To use a braille display in the manner that I have described, you must initially pair a braille display with a Mobile device and subsequently connect the display with a hot key on the Mobile device whenever you want to use the braille display. And if the braille display is connected to more than one mainstream piece of hardware, you may sometimes have to jump through a hoop or two to repair its connection with the original device to which you want to reconnect. It is also necessary to keep all the pieces charged with power.
Second, is this a solution that is applicable to deaf-blind users? The short answer is that in its current state, this technology may present some frustrations for persons who are deaf-blind in initially pairing a Bluetooth braille display to either a PDA or a cellular phone. Once the pairing occurs, you must then activate a sequential key combination as a hot key to enable braille connectivity on a Mobile Speak-equipped SmartPhone or PDA. Code Factory has put a nice speech-emulation feature in its refreshable braille support that displays all the information that hits the synthesizer of a Mobile device in your preferred grade of braille. This feature allows persons who are deaf-blind to access all the verbiage on a Mobile device across the braille display. Persons who are deaf-blind have had years to develop strategies for tackling the types of obstacles presented by a PC and a braille display with a hardwire connection, and like any new process, feedback from persons who are deaf-blind is essential so that manufacturers of Mobile screen readers can optimize this process for this highly significant segment of the market.
I conclude with the assurance that you are the ones who call the shots in this market, and you are the ones who will continue to enable these manufacturers to attempt to set market trends. You are the captain of your own technological ship, and manufacturers are there to present options to you, not impose their wills or directives on you. I believe that although there is still a niche market for notetakers, a new, alternative era is upon us. I predict that the continued rate at which mainstream technologies progress and move forward will exponentially increase, and I believe that a select group of companies that are driven by the need to innovate will continue to "push the envelope" to keep pace with what we visually impaired individuals so rightly deserve. I see the PC and the PDA moving toward common similarities, and I believe that the trend will continue that enables us to carry fewer devices and accomplish more tasks with greater ease and efficiency. I believe that synthesized speech and refreshable braille will continue to be the catalysts for those who want to embrace all the new and exciting applications that are available for us to experience and to improve the quality of our lives.
Select a solution that works for you. Do not be pressured to sell your notetaker and jump on the wireless bandwagon, and do not feel pressured to hold onto something that does not meet your needs. Once you take stock of your current wants and needs, then, and only then, will you be able to "connect the dots" and make an informed choice that works for you, thus giving the manufacturers the feedback they need to continue to develop solutions for you.