by the Access Technology Team
From the Editor: Mobile devices for managing information using Braille are both useful and expensive. Those who are considering investing in one need all the information they can get before making the decision to purchase or to investigate whether or not a vocational rehabilitation agency will buy one for personal use. The following article compares three of the newest entries in this field. Here is what the Jernigan Institute’s Access Technology Team says about them:
In this article the Access Technology team will review some of the latest developments in notetaking devices. GW Micro’s Braille Sense Plus, the LevelStar Icon, American Printing House for the Blind’s Braille Plus, and the PAC Mate Omni will be discussed.
Braille Sense Plus: Building on the success of the Braille Sense, HIMS of Korea and GW Micro have released their newest Braille notetaking solution. At 9.8 inches wide, 5 inches deep, and 1.5 inches high and weighing 2 pounds, this compact device includes a wide range of features. Specifications for the Braille Sense Plus include built-in Bluetooth, Ethernet and wireless (802.11B/G) connectivity, a thirty-two-cell Braille display, 128 megabytes of RAM, 8 gigabytes of flash storage (enough to store music, books, or the entire Sense Nav database [discussed later]), an FM radio tuner, a user-replaceable battery, USB ports, and slots for Secure Digital and Compact Flash storage cards. Additionally, unlike other notetakers, the Braille Sense Plus has an LCD screen and a VGA output port, allowing a trainer or colleagues to see what the blind user is working on.
As with other notetakers based on Braille input, the top of the Braille Sense Plus contains the standard six-dot Braille keyboard, flanked by a Backspace key on the left and an Enter key on the right. Immediately below and in the center of this keyboard is the space bar. On either side of the space bar are function keys (F1 and F2 on the left, F3 and F4 on the right) used to access menus and other functionality. These four function keys allow you to move quickly through different aspects of the Braille Sense Plus software. At any time pressing the F1 key will bring up the Programs menu used to select different applications. The F2 key behaves similarly to the Alt key in Windows: when pressed, it brings up menus such as File, Edit, etc. The F3 key is used for tabbing and, when combined with the space bar, shift-tabbing through dialog boxes. The F4 key functions as an Escape key. Behind the keyboard, in the center of the device, is the LCD screen. The display can be inverted so that, if you are sitting across from the user, the text is right side up to you, but would look upside down if the user were looking at it. On either side of the LCD display are stereo speakers. The front portion of the top of the Braille Sense Plus is dedicated to the thirty-two-character Braille display. Above each cell is a cursor-routing key, which moves the cursor to the cell when pressed. These keys also act as shortcut keys in certain circumstances. To the left and right of the Braille display are scroll keys used to move the display.
The front panel of the Braille Sense Plus contains three switches, two jacks, and five buttons used to control power, keyboard locking, and media functions. The first switch on the left is the Lock switch. When the switch is slid to the far right, no keys are locked; if it is in the middle position, the top keys are locked, allowing you to continue to use the media controls; and, when the switch is all the way to the left, all keys are locked. Two jacks are to the right of the Lock switch for connecting a stereo microphone and stereo headphones. Next is a set of media controls. The first is another three-position switch used to select what the media buttons control. In the left position this switch controls the FM radio tuner; the middle position places the media buttons into DAISY mode; and, when in the far right position, the controls are in Media mode. The next five media control buttons perform different functions depending on what position the switch is in. The final control on the front face is a three-position, spring-loaded slider. This switch normally sits in the middle position and, when slid to the right and released, powers on the Braille Sense Plus and, when slid to the left, turns the device off.
The left, rear, and right panels of the Braille Sense plus have connections for expanding the functionality of the device. Two slots are on the left side. The foremost accepts a Compact Flash card; the rearmost is a Secure Digital card slot. On the left edge of the back panel is a reset button, used if the device becomes unresponsive. To the right of the reset button are three connectors: an Ethernet jack for wired Internet or local network connections, a serial port connector, and a VGA output. Similar to the LCD display on the unit, the VGA output can be used to display the text and menus on a standard computer monitor. The right side of the Braille Sense Plus contains two USB connectors and the AC adapter plug. The front USB connector is used to connect the Braille Sense Plus to a computer, and the rear port is used to plug in external storage such as a USB flash drive.
The Braille Sense Plus contains a good deal of software allowing the user to organize, manipulate, and store information: word processor, address manager, schedule manager, email client, media player, Web browser, DAISY player, database manager, MSN messenger, and utilities including a calculator, wake-up alarm, and stop watch. The Braille Sense Plus also includes a utility to check for software updates that can be executed at any time providing you have a working Internet connection.
In addition to the built-in software, you can purchase the Sense Nav package for the Braille Sense Plus. This software, which includes an external GPS receiver, can be used to determine your current location, discover points of interest around you, and plot routes from one place to another. The included flash memory is enough to store all currently available United States maps.
The Braille Plus is manufactured by HIMS of Korea and distributed in the United States by GW Micro. This product retails for $5,995. GW Micro (Indiana), <www.gwmicro.com>, (260) 489-3671.
LevelStar Icon and APH Braille Plus Mobile Managers: These two notetaking solutions are the smallest ones discussed in this article. Both devices are palm-sized and can easily be operated with one hand. The Icon and Braille Plus have been developed collaboratively between the LevelStar, LLC, and the American Printing House for the Blind. These units run identical software and have identical features. The major difference is that the Braille Plus offers a standard Braille keyboard for entry.
Both devices resemble a telephone in configuration. The Braille Plus has a slightly boxier look and is somewhat thicker than its counterpart because of the additional nine keys provided for Braille input. Immediately above the standard twelve-key telephone keypad (which includes a tactile nub on the five key for easy identification) sit the OK, Menu, and Cancel keys. The OK key is used to confirm operations and insert blank lines while in the word processor. The Menu key brings up a context-sensitive menu for selecting application-specific functions, and the cancel key also doubles as the unit’s Power key when held down. Further up the device, is a four-way navigational control with a select button in the center that is used for moving through menus and text. Above the left and right arrows are the Status and Help keys, and above those, on the left and right sides of the front of the unit, are the Program 1 and Program 2 keys. Between the Program keys is a long, horizontal key used at any point to access the Applications menu.
The left side of the notetaker contains the Volume key, Speaker toggle, and Record button. The Speaker toggle is used to switch between the two internal speaker configurations (stereo speakers located on the sides of the device or a smaller speaker in the middle that can be used to retrieve information quietly while holding the device like a telephone). The top and bottom edges of the Icon and Braille Plus contain connection and expansion slots. The top edge has three jacks for microphone and headphone connections (a microphone/line-in, 3.5mm headphone, and sub 3.5mm jack for connecting a headset/microphone combination). The top of the device also holds a mini SD slot for a storage card. The bottom edge holds the keypad lock switch and the power/USB port connector.
On the Braille Plus, unlike the Icon, there are an additional nine keys oriented at a ninety-degree angle to the rest of the device. Turning the device so that the three keys on the right hand side are at the bottom, the user discovers the familiar six-dot keyboard at the top of the unit and Shift, Space, and Control keys at the bottom.
The Icon and Braille Plus include the types of productivity solutions we are used to seeing in notetaking devices: an address book, calendar, word processor, document reader, Web browser, media player, and even games. Additionally, tools including a stopwatch, calculator, voice recorder, journal (currently allowing synchronization with LiveJournal), file explorer, and a system backup utility are provided.
The Icon and Braille Plus can connect to wireless networks, allowing you to access Internet-based content without having to plug in to a cable. You must, of course, have access to a wireless network to take advantage of this feature. In addition to being able to browse Web pages, these notetakers have a built-in RSS reader that allows the unit to download new content. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a method of telling your device to watch a designated Website for changes. When a new article or podcast is added, your device will download it for you. By using RSS, one need not check each individual blog, news site, or podcast show he or she wants to listen to. Simply add the URL of the RSS feed to the RSS reader and the Icon or Braille Plus will do the work.
The music player can play unprotected MP3 and OGG files. Once they are transferred to the device’s music folder, the software will gather information embedded in the files such as the artist, album, track title, and genre. You can then use this information to select the songs you would like to play. Organizing music information this way offers the flexibility to sort and play music without relying on a specific folder structure. You can get music from your own CD collection by ripping your CDs to your computer, then copying the files to the Icon or Braille Plus. You can also purchase music from online sources, but be sure you are purchasing unprotected music that does not have digital rights management restrictions because such tracks will not be playable on either device.
The Library application allows the user to access and read digital books from Bookshare.org, the National Library Service, and Audible.com, as well as formatted Braille, plain text, Microsoft Word, and HTML files. You can access a list of books already on the device’s hard drive and navigate by recently accessed books, books sorted by author, or an alphabetical list of all books. If you are listening to an audiobook, you can adjust the speed of the playback. All books provide the ability to navigate through them to different sections of the content. The type and amount of navigation is determined by the book’s producer. In addition to adding content from your computer, you can search for and download books and newspapers from Bookshare.org using the Internet Book Search feature. You will need a subscription to Bookshare.org to take advantage of this ability. Additionally, in order to play books from the National Library Service, your player must be registered, and you must install a software key. The Icon and Braille Plus cannot currently play books from RFB&D.
The Icon and Braille Plus have taken an interesting approach to overcoming the challenges of a twelve-key keyboard for entering text and numbers. In addition to the ABC method common to cell phones (where the number 2 key is pressed twice for the letter “b,” the 8 key is pressed three times for the letter “v,” and so on), a method has been developed for using the numeric keyboard to simulate a Braille cell. When you use Thumb Braille to enter text, the one, four, and seven keys are used as dots one, two, and three, while the three, six, and nine keys represent dots four, five, and six. To enter letters or symbols, the user presses the desired combination of keys, for example pressing one and four will insert the letter “b.” The difficult part, and thus the creative solution, comes when trying to press more than two keys at once. You may notice that the two, five, eight and zero keys remain unused. These keys are used to enter dot combinations. The two key enters dots one and three; the five key dots one, two, and three; the eight key, dots four and six; and the zero key, dots four, five, and six. To enter the letter “p” for example, one would simultaneously press the keys five and three, entering dots one, two, three, and four in the text area.
In addition to the features discussed, the Icon and Braille Plus can also act as an external drive for a PC, allowing quick file transfers. Bluetooth is also provided for data transfer and connecting a keyboard. Additionally, a docking station is available providing a QWERTY keyboard and Ethernet connectivity. The Icon and Braille Plus come standard with a forty-GB hard drive, carrying case, wrist strap, ear buds, and software CD.
For information on the Icon contact LevelStar, LLC. (Colorado), (800) 315-2305, <www.levelstar.com>. Braille Plus information can be obtained from the American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. (Kentucky), (800) 223-1839, <www.aph.org/tech>.
PAC Mate Omni: In December of 2007 Freedom Scientific released the PAC Mate Omni, which is an enhancement to the existing PAC Mate PocketPC device that has been on the market for some time. The PAC Mate Omni, on the surface, looks like the classic PAC Mates. The biggest changes to the unit are internal. The Omni is powered by Windows Mobile 6.0, which is more advanced than Windows Mobile 2003. The newer version of Windows includes enhancements geared toward devices that have keyboards, allowing applications running on the device to be more accessible through a keyboard interface.
The biggest advantage to the PAC Mate Omni is the onboard 128 MB of flash memory. This memory, in conjunction with the new operating system, makes it possible to prevent data loss if the battery is run completely flat. As long as documents were properly saved, they will not be lost. Only the date and time will need to be reset in the event of a complete battery drain.
Soft keys are a new addition to the PAC Mate. As in a mobile phone, application-specific commands appear near the bottom of the screen that can be activated with the soft keys. The PAC Mate can be configured to announce and display these soft key assignments automatically if you wish, or you can use a command to report the soft key assignments instantly if any exist.
The PAC Mate Omni has always contained the capability to read and edit files produced by Microsoft Office applications. Now the PAC Mate Omni provides support for documents composed in Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel 2007. PAC Mate users can now view PowerPoint presentations. This feature will benefit students and professionals alike since they can immediately access any PowerPoint file that is available on a Website or that has been emailed to them. Pocket Outlook has also seen major improvements. The PAC Mate Omni can now take advantage of Microsoft Direct Push technology, which allows email to be sent to the device immediately when it is connected to push-enabled email services. Microsoft Exchange accounts can also be used in this way. The Windows Live suite, including Windows Live Search, Windows Live Messenger, and Windows Live Mail, have also been integrated.
In August of 2008 Freedom Scientific released the first major update to the PAC Mate Omni since its initial release. The new update provides the capability to write contracted Braille anywhere. This lets the user write in contracted Braille within Microsoft Word documents, Web forms, email messages, and even dialog boxes for entering file names or other information. Exceptions include Excel spreadsheets and email addresses. When using speech, the PAC Mate alerts the user if computer Braille is required. A begin-computer-Braille symbol also appears on the Braille display if one is in use to ensure that the user knows to type in computer Braille.
A new reader mode has been added to provide enhanced accessibility to applications that do not have a system cursor. Two important uses of this mode are the reading of PDF files and access to books and other content available on the Palm eReader service. The eReader service provides access to best-selling books, often on the same day they are released in print. Keystrokes have been added to allow the user to turn pages quickly in eBooks and PDF files using the new reader mode. These keystrokes simulate the directional arrows on most standard PDAs. Menus within the eReader application let you set bookmarks, go to specific pages, and use a slider control to open the book to a certain percentage. More information about accessing books can be found at <http://www.ereader.com>. Orneta Software’s PDF Reader Mobile is the only tested PDF application that will work with PAC Mate Omni. It can be found at <www.orneta.com> and sells for $19.95.
Support for wireless networking has also been improved. With the release of the PAC Mate Omni, drivers for the Socket 10/100 wireless card were built in. In August drivers were added for the popular Ambicom WL54-CF card. This means that, if you use either of these cards, you can simply insert the card and connect to a network without installing any additional software. Other cards certified for compatibility with Windows Mobile 6 will also work with PAC Mate Omni, but their drivers will need to be installed. WPA, a more secure wireless networking standard often found in corporate environments, is also a part of Windows Mobile 6. The PAC Mate Omni can be used to access Virtual Private networks.
Two features have been added exclusively for PAC Mate Omni QX400 units, which contain QWERTY keyboards. By accessing the keyboard settings, users can switch to one of eleven language input settings. This lets you enter text in English or any of the supported foreign languages. Previously users could input Braille using a QX unit in FSEdit, Freedom Scientific’s word-processing application. Now Braille input mode can be used throughout the PAC Mate Omni environment with the QX400.
As with classic PAC Mates, you can purchase a PAC Mate Omni with either a Braille or a full typewriter-style QWERTY keyboard. The PAC Mate Omni can be used as a speech-only device, or you can attach a twenty- or forty-cell refreshable Braille display. For further information about the PAC Mate Omni, contact Freedom Scientific at (800) 444-4443. The Freedom Scientific Website at <www.freedomscientific.com> will also provide information about new features and upgrades to the PAC Mate Omni as they become available.