Access Tech Review: HIMS Sense Player
By Karl Belanger
The HIMS Sense player is the latest accessible portable book player, following in the footsteps of the HumanWare Victor Reader Stream and Hims Blaze ET. Like the previous Blaze devices, the Sense player has the option for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) capabilities to be built into the device through a camera at the top of the back side of the device.
The Sense player has basic features that users expect from other similar products. These include book and music playback, podcast management, and the ability to download and play Bookshare publications. The device does have two features that set it apart from its competition:
- The “smart connect” feature allows users to control a connected smartphone from the Sense Player. An Android or iOS phone can be directly controlled from the device without taking the phone out. Audio can also be transmitted to the Sense Player over the same Bluetooth connection.
- The device also has the ability to install a limited selection of Android apps, including Audible, Bard Mobile, Netflix and others. This allows the Sense Player to access many more services than it otherwise could.
Given these two features, I think the HIMS Sense Player is worth your consideration.
The Sense player is a thin rectangular device, the back of which has a lanyard loop at the top. The OCR version has a camera directly below that. The rest of the back covers the removable battery. The bottom edge has a headphone jack on the left and a USB C port on the right. The right edge has the power button and a key lock switch. The left edge has a record button at the top, and a mode button, two volume buttons, and a Micro SD slot in that order. The mode button changes what the volume buttons control. (Voice speed, music equalizer, etc.)
The top face has stereo speakers along the top and bottom edges. Most of the face is taken up with a 12-key telephone style keypad. Above this are four directional buttons with a confirm button in the center, and four other function keys arrayed around it.
The top row of keys have two distinct clicks as you press each. The first click is a short press, and the second click is a deep press. You can also do long presses by deep pressing and holding. The keys let you quickly switch between applications, manage Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and open Smart Connect. A short press generally announces the status, deep presses toggle the setting, and long presses open the settings menu for that key.
Getting Started and Basic Functions
The Sense Player walks you through a getting started guide and initial setup procedure when you first turn on the device. You’ll learn about the keyboard, configure the date and time, and get comfortable with using the device. The guide finishes at the main menu, which will feel familiar to users of other HIMS devices—it follows a similar scheme with File Explorer at the top, and settings and Utilities at the bottom.
The basic apps in this menu are functional, but don’t do anything especially unique. The Media player opens and plays a variety of music files, and lets you build playlists and adjust sound with a basic equalizer. The Daisy Player lets you read audio and text daisy books, and the document reader lets you read other types of documents. Podcasts and internet radio are both basic ways of listening to their respective types of content. None of the applications are bad or missing critical features. For the rest of this blog, I’ll be focusing on three features: Optical character Recognition (OCR), Smart Connect, and Android Apps.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR)
The OCR feature is only available on the OCR version of the device, which is slightly more expensive. Upon launching the OCR feature, the device will give you feedback on how the camera is positioned, along with buttons to turn on the flash or take pictures. You can also open the menu with one of the function keys. This lets you browse files you’ve recognized before, or scan PDF’s or image files. The OCR feature generally gave good results during our testing.
Having the ability to OCR a local file is nice. A student could, for example, load inaccessible class handouts on the device and recognize them without a computer. The OCR feature could be useful if you’re less comfortable with (or don’t have) a smartphone. I didn’t find it to be better than smartphone apps like Seeing AI or Google Lookout, though. If you’re happy with one of those, I don’t see a compelling reason to switch.
Deep press the top right key on the device to enter Smart Connect pairing mode. Go into your phone’s Bluetooth settings, and select the Sense Player. Once connected, you can control your phone from the sense player. You can navigate around the phone, enter text in apps, make calls, and even control media playback. The Sense Player has mappings for both iOS and Android, so you should select the proper one for your device in global options. This is where you can also choose whether the phone audio comes through the Sense Player.
The smart connect feature is, while not unique, quite well done. This is similar to the RiVo keyboard, which has been around for a number of years. You use the arrows, as well as certain numbers on the keypad, to navigate around your phone, enter text, and even browse the web. The menu key switches between keyboard types depending on your situation.
I have two minor concerns with this feature. When you switch away from Smart Connect, the connection is dropped immediately. You must wait for the device to reconnect each time you switch back, which can take several seconds. This brings me to the second concern: reconnecting isn’t consistent. I’ve routinely had the Sense Player fail to reconnect to a phone that I was connected to moments ago, but then connect fine once I long press the smart connect key and choose the device from the menu. Even that sometimes takes two or three attempts before it successfully connects, with nothing having apparently changed. Once connected, the connection seems stable enough. I would like to see changes made to keep the connection alive for a short time when you leave smart connect, and to make reconnecting a little more robust and consistent. This feature could be useful for people who are uncomfortable with touchscreens, or who may have difficulty performing touch gestures.
Using Android Apps
The Sense Player provides access to NLS BARD, Audible, and other services by running the corresponding Android apps. There is an “all apps” option at the bottom of the main menu. It initially only contains an app installer, which presents a list of apps you can download, including Apple Music, Audible, Bard Mobile, and even Netflix and Zoom. The Chrome Browser and E-Speak synthesizer are also there to provide access to some services other apps need, such as some self-voiced features in Bard Mobile or the login process for the Audible App. These apps work well with the player. You can move around the screens, use media controls, and generally interact with the apps. The screen reader has limited functionality, so you can’t navigate by page elements.
You can also manually download and install apps, but not all of them will work. The manual gives details on how to do this, and also goes deeper into potential issues. I highly recommend reading that section if you intend to try loading your own apps.
Using Android apps is a clever and effective way to get more services and features on the player than it initially provides. Most people will likely be satisfied with the selection of apps that HIMS provides. Manually loading apps is certainly doable, but can be hit or miss. I was able to get Sirius XM Radio to work on the player, but was unsuccessful with YouTube Music, for example.
The Sense Player brings some interesting features to the table that differentiate it from the existing players on the market. Using Android apps for services like NLS Bard and Audible is particularly novel, as it makes the player far more extensible than any before it. You can purchase the Sense Player for $650, or the Sense Player OCR for 750 dollars from the HIMS site.