by Michael D. Barber
From the Editor: Michael Barber is the president of the NFB Assistive Technology Trainers Division, works for the Iowa Department for the Blind as the rehabilitation technology specialist, and is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa. Here is what he has to say about his history with Braille displays and his thoughts about a new offering:
My very first introduction to the world of refreshable Braille was in 1991 during my employment as the first totally blind customer service representative at then Norwest Card Services (later to become Wells Fargo Card Services). My job was to help customers understand their monthly statements, assist with replacing lost or stolen cards, make necessary monetary adjustments to their statements, give balances, etc.
At that time I was using Artic Business Vision, but because of unresolved conflicts between Norwest's system and the screen-reading technology, it was clear my short stay at Norwest was in jeopardy. Enter Humanware and the Alva 280 Braille display. I had never seen a Braille display and was totally unfamiliar with what they could do. This Alva display was a job saver for me, because now I could without exception do all the things my sighted coworkers were doing.
Since then I've seen many different displays, ranging from the eighty-cell to the twelve-cell offered by the Braille Pen 12 display. Some of these displays are simply that--Braille displays--while others actually allow the ability to take notes using their Perkins-style or QWERTY keyboards as seen with the BrailleNote, Braille Sense, and other devices. The most recent offering I've seen is the Braille Edge 40 from HIMS Inc.
The Braille Edge 40 is a very basic note-taking device manufactured by HIMS Inc. It features a forty-cell Braille display, a nine-key Perkins style keyboard, eight function keys, eight navigation buttons, four scroll buttons, and forty cursor-routing keys. Additionally it operates using the Windows CE 5.0 operating system and has a lithium polymer battery, which lasts approximately twenty hours before recharging. The package includes a USB cable, an AC power adapter, a CD containing the manual, and a 2GB SD card. The unit measures approximately twelve inches long and about four inches deep and weighs about two pounds. Its primary function is as a Braille display for the JAWS, Window-Eyes, and NVDA screen readers. It also works with iOS devices such as Apple's iPhone and iPad. At present it does not work with the 5.11 iOS software; however, it did work with the previous version. According to HIMS, they are hopeful that Apple will fix the problem in the next software release.
With the unit oriented so that the Braille cells are nearest you, the unit has forty cursor-routing keys above the display. To the left and right ends of the Braille display are two sets of up and down scroll buttons. These are used to scroll between menus, fields, lists, and text. You can also use these buttons to scroll by display length or line. Above the display is the nine-key Perkins-style keyboard, along with eight function keys and two four-way navigation keys. The function keys are arranged four to the left of the spacebar and four to the right. From left to right the function keys are Esc, Tab, Control, Alt, Shift, Insert, Windows, and Applications. Just below these is a strip which has seven little dots located at five-cell intervals. The Braille keyboard has dots one to six, with the backspace key on the left, the enter key on the right, and the spacebar in the middle, between the two sets of function keys. On the left and right corners of the top panel are two four-way navigation keys with up, down, left, and right arrow buttons. Between dots one and four is a speaker from which the user hears audio alerts. At the top of the unit on the right edge are two LED lights, one for Bluetooth and one for USB connectivity.
Along the left edge are two items--a Bluetooth/USB switch and the SD card slot, which is capable of handling up to a high-capacity 32GB SD card. The Bluetooth/USB slide switch is in the middle of the unit. Moving toward the rear, a letter B is just behind the switch, indicating Bluetooth connectivity.
Going from front to back along the right edge of the unit are first the USB OTG [On-The-Go] port and then the AC adapter jack. On the front panel is one button, the power on/off button. In the middle of the unit on the back is a recessed reset button. Near the right edge of the back panel is a very small hole that contains a shutdown button. This is used only when using the reset button gets no results or when connecting the AC adapter doesn't power up the unit.
The Braille Edge 40 can open BRF files such as those found on Web Braille, create new BRL files, and edit text files. It also has a calculator, planner, stopwatch, countdown timer, and alarm. Its price is slightly under three thousand dollars, which is about half the price of other popular note-taking devices on the market.
While this unit provides a nice ergonomic design for the keyboard and the keys are easy to push and very responsive, I experienced a problem in getting one setting to hold in the Options Menu. I wanted the unit to start in a new document, and it would not. HIMS indicates that this is a known problem. When I pressed the reset button on the rear panel of the unit, it would start up, and I was placed in a new document. Powering down and then back up produced the same result as before, and I was once again in the main menu.
A major limitation of this unit is that it currently has no ability to backtranslate a document, meaning that material written in Grade II Braille can be read only by someone with a Braille-aware device. One cannot write in Grade II, email that document, and have it read in print or spoken correctly by a screen reader’s speech synthesizer. Though a reverse Braille translator is slated for an upcoming release, without it the unit is significantly limited as a notetaker, and its primary value is likely to be as a Braille display.
I was able to install the needed drivers successfully so that the unit would work nicely with JAWS for Windows. When one connects the unit to the computer using the USB cable, the Braille Edge automatically powers up and is immediately placed in Terminal mode. Loading JAWS or reloading it causes the Braille display to show what the screen reader sees. The manual accompanying the unit is easy to follow, and the steps to perform various functions are written in an easy-to-follow style.
My conclusions are these: 1) HIMS has developed an excellent product which is principally for use as a Braille display or for taking notes. 2) With the price about half of what other note-taking devices cost, this will be attractive to individuals and rehabilitation agencies alike. 3) The unit is very comfortable to write on. 4) The Braille on the display is very firm and easy to read; 5) Although this is a nice unit, I fear that, because of the small percentage of people reading or writing Braille, it may not sell as well as it would otherwise. 6) I could live with a unit half its size using a twenty-cell display.