After the recent announcement and feedback at CSUN about the release of the Orbit Reader 20, a new refreshable braille display with an SD card slot and stand-alone functionality, it is clear the device warrants some additional description.
In brief, the Orbit Reader 20 combines simplicity, functionality, and connectivity in a unique and low priced package to make reading braille more practical in a number of situations. Blind mobile technology users enjoy increasingly better and less expensive speech output accessibility improvements, but braille is nearly always achieved by employing an external device. The device works much like a Bluetooth keyboard, except in this case, the peripheral is a refreshable braille display that sometimes includes a braille keyboard. This scenario works, but few can argue that one single unit that includes the braille components is a far superior setup. Here, the unfortunate truth of manufacturing products for a low-incidence population arises— currently, no large for-profit manufacturer can justify the low return on investment for refreshable braille technology.
The need for specialization, recognition of the importance of braille literacy, and the advancement of electronics technology was the motivation behind the production of electronic braille displays for several companies in the blindness business. Over the years, these electronic braille products evolved into three categories.
Braille Terminals—a refreshable braille device that connects to a host, with no additional functionality. It usually includes a USB and Bluetooth interface and sometimes features a braille keyboard. The user reads the braille from an app running on a phone, tablet, or computer (host) and then controls the host and/or types with the keyboard using the braille terminal.
Note Takers—works like a braille terminal and includes additional functionality, such as editing or a calendar, that is used without connecting to a host. These devices always include a braille keyboard.
PDAs—a note taker that uses a mobile operating system to provide all the services of a smartphone or tablet. Modern PDAs include Android and Windows applications. These devices could even be called braille tablets. This is the next best solution for the user desiring the ultimate experience of a single integrated unit.
One of the disadvantages of braille PDAs is the cost. While the user can obtain a well-equipped iPhone for about $800, or even use an Amazon Fire tablet for $50, the cost of braille PDAs is in the thousands. And while it is almost painless to spend a few hundred dollars every two or three years to upgrade to the latest device, spending thousands to keep up with braille technology hurts a lot more and is out of range for many users.
These disproportionate prices should not reflect badly on the manufacturers—it is expensive to design specialty hardware, and the traditional braille cells used to date are very expensive. Relatively low quantities for manufacturing also contributes to the problem. And there is a market for premium braille PDAs.
For most users, the note taker offers a middle-ground approach. It provides minimal, but essential, functionality in a stand-alone operation and lets the user connect to a host device for more demanding tasks, such as web browsing or streaming movies. The disadvantage is the inconvenience of having two separate devices with which to contend. However, this aspect becomes an advantage when it is time to upgrade to the next generation of phone or tablet.
The Orbit Reader 20 was designed as a braille reading device. It falls into the note taker category. Its stand-alone capabilities include reading, writing, and file management. For anything else, the user connects to a host device that provides those services. In this usage model, the Orbit Reader 20 becomes a terminal that displays the braille for the app running on the phone, tablet, or PC. It works via Bluetooth with iOS and Android devices and through USB or Bluetooth for Windows, Mac, and any other operating system that includes a screen reader with braille support. In the USB configuration, Orbit Reader 20 supports both serial and human interface device (HID) protocols. This means, if the screen reader supports it, no driver installation is required.
When using it as a stand-alone device, Orbit Reader 20 starts as a reader displaying the content of files stored on the SD card. The interface is simple, keeping the focus on allowing the reader to scroll through the text and select other titles. The youngest readers find it easy to get the next line of braille by pressing the panning button. For more advanced users, Orbit Reader 20 provides searching, bookmark, and note taking capabilities.
In addition to its use as a reader, Orbit Reader 20 lets the user create and edit text. Make no mistake, the editor is simple and works with about 50 pages at a time. But if more complex formatting or spell check is needed, the user utilizes a word processing program, such as Microsoft Word, on the PC with Orbit Reader 20 serving as the braille terminal.
Finally, Orbit Reader includes file management capabilities as part of its stand-alone functionality. The user can rename, delete, copy, and create files and folders as needed.
Along with these simple software features, Orbit Reader 20 boasts some noteworthy hardware. The most distinctive feature is the braille technology. Some compare it to the braille used on signage. The dots do not give when the user presses them. The dots on some braille displays using the traditional technology yield to pressure. Perceptually, this results in the sensation of pushing the dot down when the user applies deliberate force to it. The technology used in the Orbit Reader 20 does not exhibit this characteristic. Once the dot is raised, it stays raised no matter how hard the user examines it. This unique factor could have positive implications for beginning braille readers or those who suffer with some degree of neuropathy.
The Orbit Reader 20 was made possible by the Transforming Braille Group, LLC. Their goals for this device included increasing literacy by dramatically reducing the cost of refreshable braille technology.
In 2011, Kevin Carey, Chair of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), announced that RNIB would find a technology that disrupts the braille display market by radically reducing the cost of refreshable braille. He convinced 10 world-wide blindness organizations to form the Transforming Braille Group, LLC (TBG). The organizations involved in TBG are listed here:
• American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
• Association Valentin HauY (AVH)
• Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB)
• Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
• National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
• Norwegian Association for the Blind and Partially Sighted (NABP)
• Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins)
• Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)
• Vision Australia (VA)
After a thorough examination of over 60 possible projects, TBG agreed to fund Orbit Research with $1.25 million to develop the reader for about $300 each, with a commitment of 50,000 units over a five-year period.
In March 2016, TBG and Orbit announced the successful completion of the project and revealed the prototypes at the CSUN conference.
While no organization has yet published an end user price for the Orbit Reader 20, it is fair to expect a price around $500 for North America. TBG members can get the device for $320, but this is just for the device. Individual member organizations must package, localize, support, and distribute the device. TBG members are all non-profit organizations, so determining factors toward an end user cost depend on the cost of the following described items.
Packaging might include an SD card (possibly with some content), a USB cable, large print and braille quick start guides, an AC adapter, and a box and packaging. Some of these components vary depending on the location; for example, translation of the quick start guides into an appropriate language and provision of AC adapters compatible with local plugs. Member organizations may choose to collaborate for lower packaging and accessory prices.
Another example that could affect the end user price is the use of a software utility that allows an organization to translate the user interface into any language, thus allowing delivery of a product directly to their customers that is already configured and preloaded with content on the SD card.
Organizations may also want to create software and hardware support systems. While the device is engineered for varying climates, eventually the battery, for example, needs replacement. Currently, it is user replaceable, but some organizations may wish to consider providing services such as battery sales or installation.
Some of the most important considerations for successful integration of such a breakthrough technology are marketing, support, and education. Individual TBG members are responsible for providing information to consumers and educational and government entities about the cost and literacy advantages. They also build customer support channels and create and distribute tutorials or localized versions of the user interface and documentation.
To date, CNIB, RNIB, and APH have announced intentions to distribute the device when it becomes available in the fall of 2016. Non-TBG members will also be able to purchase the Orbit Reader 20, but they will not enjoy the $320 price. Final price and timing details are forthcoming. Orbit Reader uses common off-the-shelf parts. Most of these parts are used in millions of other consumer devices, so it is expected that the individual prices will continue to fall.
The end result of a low-cost refreshable braille display is not magic. The TBG made a commitment, identified a technology, financed it, committed to quantities, and accepted compromises to achieve this remarkable cost breakthrough. In addition to the financial and quantity commitments, the new technology and compromises made between TBG members complete the successful formula for the significant price reduction. A look at some of the compromises helps explain.
The first difference from full featured devices is the lack of cursor routing buttons. What that means to individual users depends on how they use the device. These buttons, which are associated with individual cells, make the interface easier on modern operating systems. The cursor routing buttons were eliminated due to limited usefulness when used as a reader and to save on cost. Currently, there are discussions taking place about the introduction of models with additional features, and cursor router buttons certainly qualify as one of the more important features being considered.
The second difference from full-featured devices is that the unit refreshes differently from previously existing technology. The refresh rate is slower, and the user can just hear the slight tap as each pin rises from left to right. However, it happens quickly, usually in about half a second for the whole line—the left side is ready almost immediately. The refresh rate could be faster with additional cost, but initial indications show that many users are satisfied with this alternate technique.
The last difference is in the size and appearance; it is not the smallest or sleekest refreshable braille device available. It is approximately 6 inches wide, 4 inches deep, and just over 1 inch tall; and it appears more utilitarian than elegant. Regardless, it looks good, is built ruggedly, and functions well. It does not come with a carrying case, but it does contain rings where a strap may be attached. Orbit Research will offer a case for purchase, and it is likely that some of the well-known case developers, such as Executive Products, will supply a carrying case.
The device is not intended to compete with high end PDAs. Its purpose is to get braille into the hands of more users. Now, parents can afford a braille reader to accompany the family tablet, libraries can reduce costs for those users that desire electronic distribution, and governments can provide inexpensive, easy to maintain devices on which to read.
For teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) in the United States, it means that schools can provide a braille display for every student that requires one, which should be available to the student for home use for evenings and weekends. The TVI can use it to provide high-quality transcribed electronic textbooks. At school, students can use it to read textbooks, write homework assignments, take notes, and interact with the school computer. At home, they can read books and magazines, work on homework assignments, interact with their iPad, and connect it to the home computer.
In short, the Orbit Reader 20 provides a simple, well-built, inexpensive method to offer the prospect of literacy to more people who are blind and visually impaired by dramatically reducing the cost of refreshable braille technology. It is not the sleekest, most elegant, smallest, or most feature laden device available. It is, however, an incredible value for simple, reliable, electronic braille tasks. The Transforming Braille Group is optimistic that this combination will ease the literacy crisis among blind citizens the world round.