I purchased my first ever refreshable brail reader/terminal last week. Until now, my limited use case for a device like this made the expenditure unreasonable to me. I read braille and use it where it makes sense to do so, but braille is not my primary means of accessing content. Mostly I wanted the display to help with light braille editing that I do while preparing handouts for our church.
When I heard about the Orbit Reader 20 from The American Printing House for the Blind (APH,) I was interested. At $449, it is less than half the cost of the other lower-end braille displays that are available and a small fraction of the cost of others.
If you visit the link above near the time of this writing, you’ll probably see that it is not currently available. They have had some trouble ramping up production of the units. I was able to get in on the last batch that came out. They go quickly when announced.
To fill in those readers who may not know what I’m writing about, A refreshable braille display is a device that allows a blind person to read digital files in braille or interact with their electronic device through a braille interface. It does this by manipulating a series of tiny pins that serve as the braille dots. As the user moves through the material, the pins go up and down to make the braille patterns. Capabilities range from simple terminal interfaces that work with computers, phones or tablets to full fledged computers that allow the user to interact with both braille and text-to-speech. The Orbit Reader is a 20 cell display with bluetooth and USB connectivity that also provides for reading files stored on an SD card, which ships with the unit, and very basic note taking ability.
I received mine on Thursday evening. It came in an ordinary box with bubble wrap packing, much like you would expect if you bought a second hand unit from a reseller. I imagine they’ll fancy that up a little once they’re at full capacity, but maybe not. The packaging is adequate and there’s no compelling reason to spend extra money on the aesthetics. In the box with the unit were a braille and large print quick start guide, a micro USB cable, and a wall charger.
There was one other bump in the road with the order process. Hopefully this has been corrected by now, but when I ordered mine, the site offered free matter for the blind as a shipping option. This is not a valid option for items of this kind, but I did not encounter any information during the order to apprize me of this fact. If it was there, my screen reader did not ever land on it. The order went through without the shipping charge. A few days later, I was charged $18.92 with no explanation as to why. I had to contact APH to find out. I suppose I could have raised a stink. After all, they accepted my order and gave me no indication that shipping would be charged. I let it go.
When I plugged in the display and powered it up, It came up displaying the quick start guide, and I took a moment to experiment with the controls, moving down through the text and reading. Since this is my first display and I have only examined others briefly, I can’t do an in depth comparison to others that some may be familiar with. I can say the thing is rather loud, and it won’t win any awards for speed, though it is is adequate for reading in most situations. I thought it might be useful to read a digital copy of the handouts I make for the church, but with only 20 cells and the slow refresh rate, it will be hard to keep up with a fast paced song. Depending on the acoustics and ambient noise level of a room, it may prove distracting in quiet environments such as a classroom. I took it to a meeting that was held in a private room at a restaurant, and it did not seem overly loud there, so I would not rule it out in every case.
I read through the manual from APH’s web site, then hooked it up to my Mac. The instructions in the manual were incorrect as of this writing. It said to set the USB mode to Serial, but you actually need to leave it on HID to connect to the Mac via USB. It connected easily to my iPhone over bluetooth, but I had some difficulty trying to use it as an input device. Whether set to contracted or uncontracted braille, what came out was full of errors and character combinations that I cannot explain despite some knowledge of computer braille and strong familiarity with contracted grade 2. Nevertheless I will concede that some of my difficulty may come from being a novice braille display user. When I gave up, I discovered that the command for getting into the menu system or the one for switching the unit into standalone mode would not work with the unit paired to my phone. I had to go and make the iPhone forget the display before I could regain control. I suppose that turning off the display and turning it back on might have worked, but since I was pretty sure that was my last attempt to use the display that way, I chose the former method. Temporarily turning off the bluetooth on the phone would also have worked. These issues may be addressed in future firmware updates, but as of this writing I can’t get them. See below.
Now for the real test. Can I use the Orbit Reader on the Mac for my intended purpose? Well, kind of. Once Voiceover on the Mac was able to see the unit, it began working immediately and I had a look through Voiceover’s interface settings. The unit itself does no braille translation, i.e. computer braille to grade 2 contracted braille. However, Voiceover can do that for you. Most of the time, that would be nice, but not when I’m trying to review an actual translated braille document, so I looked for a way to easily turn translation on and off. I found it, but it didn’t work. I don’t know if that is the fault of Voiceover or the display itself. So I left it off.
On the possibility that the display might need a firmware upgrade, I went back to the manual to find out how to do that. To my dismay, Mac users or anyone without a Windows PC at hand is out of luck. One has to download and unzip a file from the site and run a Windows executable while performing specific key presses on the unit to make the date happen. Fortunately my wife does have a Windows PC, but that didn’t work out either. I copied the unzipped folder contents to our network attached drive and from there to my wife’s PC. I then hooked up the display and ran the software. I was greeted with a message saying the program couldn’t run on this PC. The PC is running Windows 10. I have not investigated further except to determine that running as administrator was no more useful. I hope that a mack updater is planned for the future, but I would suggest to APH that there needs to be an alternative way to do this. I was expecting something along the lines of how the NLS players and the original Victor Reader are updated. One loads the upgrade file to the SD card or USB stick and then inserts it into the unit before turning it on. That doesn’t help someone with no computer at all, but it is a step in the right direction that might not require adding significantly to the capabilities or cost of the machine.
My next step was to fire up Duxbury for Mac, the program I have been using to translate material into Braille. It was a total loss. This is not the fault of the device. Duxbury has done a poor job of Voiceover support. I participated in the beta program and up until the final release it worked pretty well, but it was completely broken in the production version. I have to use the last beta to do any editing.
But maybe all is not lost. APH has its own braille translator, Braille Blaster, and it’s free! I gave that a try and the results were much better. I was able to ctrl-tab to the translated braille and tell through the display exactly what it was going to look like. The translator is aimed at professionals doing large scale work for students, so some niceties that would be part of a typical consumer product are missing, but it did work. My only disappointment there was that when I copied the braille file to the display for offline reading, I found extraneous characters in the file where I had applied styles such as headings. I saw these in the printed side of the file while I was working on it, but they did not appear in the braille on screen. Hopefully this is something that will be resolved in the future. I applaud APH for making this program available, since the alternatives cost hundreds of dollars and many cannot afford them.
The verdict: almost not quite. I am delighted that APH and others are working on a way to bring refreshable braille technology down to a level where people can afford to use it if they need it. In some situations, this will be a perfectly viable solution to give more people access to braille than would otherwise have it. My own experience would no doubt have been better if I were a Windows user. I think I’ll hang onto it and see how things develop, but I don’t see myself getting a lot of use from it right away. I should also mention that there are others entering the space. I recently stumbled upon another low cost display that is in development by a company in India. The Braille Me has a similar price point, and according to the maker uses a technology that is more comparable to the more expensive displays in terms of speed and noise production. I look forward to watching this market develop. We are blessed to have so much technology available today to make our lives easier.