Amazon Fire Braille Support: New, Improved, and Still Improving
In our recent blog post, “The State of Refreshable Braille Support — Summer 2017,” the access technology team shared some of the most relevant findings from our recent review of Braille support across a large number of different devices, and at that time we noted that, “Of course, the pace of technology is faster than most of us can keep up with for long.” Well, we certainly were not wrong on that point.
A Few Quick Updates
Between editing and posting of the original post, NVDA 2017.3 was released with the promised contracted Braille input. Shortly afterward, VFO announced that the public beta of JAWS 2018 included a newer version of Liblouis, which is the translation package that drives Braille support in JAWS, and several other screen access packages. This is great news as several problems with Braille translation should be corrected with inclusion of this software update. Some errors of instant translation will still exist in all packages, but this is a great step forward for Braille accuracy in a heavily used screen reader and is most gladly welcomed.
Furthermore, we are literally just getting our fingers on iOS 11’s Braille support, and we can continue to expect to see another batch of improvements from Windows Narrator in the next couple months. However, that is not why we are here today…
A New Contender Appears
As you may have guessed from the title of this post, Braille on the Amazon Fire tablets (formerly known as the Kindle Fire tablets) is a unique experience that deserves its own review. This is a relatively new advancement, as prior to spring of this year, Braille support for the Fire tablet, which runs a heavily customized version of Android as FireOS, had used Google’s BrailleBack to provide Braille support, and had to be downloaded from the Amazon app store. Therefore when creating our testing set, we chose not to review it on Amazon’s device.
At CSUN this year, while we were giving the initial presentation these blog posts are based on, Amazon presented a change to the way it handled Braille. It was no longer a separate download of BrailleBack, but instead was incorporated directly into VoiceView on all Fire tablets going forward. The initial release was read-only and was primarily intended for reading Kindle titles on the Fire, but that’s not where the story ends.
As I write this, Amazon’s Fire team has been quietly dropping updates on to sixth, seventh, and eighth generation Fire tablets that add the first round of support for writing in Braille on the device, so if we are lucky, once you have read this review, the update will have made its way to a device near you.
Like most other mobile devices, connections are Bluetooth only, and it’s simple to pair and get to connect, except for the addition of some extra challenges when first connecting a VarioUltra, the actual process of pairing a Braille display is to visit Accessibility> VoiceView > Braille > search for devices, and select your display from the list that appears. Connectivity is still sparse, with support for only a few displays at present, though chances are good that this list will grow in the coming months.
- Orbit Reader 20
- APH Refreshabraille
- HumanWare Brailliant
- BAUM VarioUltra, SuperVario 2, and VarioConnect
Braille display preferences are currently fairly limited. For the most unique of these options, it is important to note that unlike in iOS and Android’s BrailleBack, VoiceView Braille support is not tied to the focus cursor for the screen reader. It is possible to read beyond the active cursor, so there is an option to highlight its location in Braille. The highlight consists of dots seven and eight underneath all text in focus. I found the lack of options for how to distinguish this cursor somewhat frustrating, as the “highlighting” of a line of Braille with an underline of dots seven and eight can make Braille nearly illegible for me. Other options including choosing between UEB and older literary Braille as well as computer Braille for input and output, and the ability to mute speech while using Braille are welcome and seem to work correctly.
Braille support on the Fire is still in its infancy. It is possible to see potential here, and it is in many ways more competent than Android’s BrailleBack, but writing is still quite difficult, and reading is hampered by a lack of necessary formatting metadata which affects both speech and Braille when using the tablet. Also, commands are extremely limited, or at least that was what I was going to say before opening the documentation this morning and finding that the number of available commands had tripled since I had last reviewed them. Clearly this is a point where Amazon is placing some focus and energy. This is great to see, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Braille continues to develop.
Braille on the Fire looks to be coming up roses, so long as you remember that roses have very sharp thorns. Several of which stung me hard during testing. First, there are still some commands which are necessary for using a tablet primarily from a Braille display which are not yet present, including turning pages, and text selection. Second, I could not enter text in the body of an email message. As soon as I began typing, my focus moved out of the editing area and into the auto-completes above the onscreen keyboard. It is possible that I missed something that would have helped with this, but I never found a workaround. Third, and most problematically, when I switched into a “kids” profile, Braille support was lost entirely. On initial load of the profile, both speech and Braille are de-activated until they are turned on in Settings, which is annoying, but can be overcome. Unfortunately, upon re-pairing my Braille display, I found that although it was possible to use some commands from the Braille keyboard to navigate the screen, none of the text read by VoiceView is present on the display.
With all of that said, Braille on the Fire tablet can still be used for reading the text of books and websites, and will be able to provide some benefit in manipulating the tablet. I could not recommend this pairing for someone who is dependent on the display for all input or output, but the support already available is promising, especially considering the frequency of improvement we have seen so far.
The Amazon Fire tablet’s Braille support is not yet a complete package, but it is already useful, particularly for those using the Fire as a reading device. If this pace of development is maintained, I expect we will see great things in the next year. In the meantime, if you have the required equipment, it’s worth giving it a spin for yourself. For only being about six months old, the Fire’s Braille support has come quite a way, and I look forward to seeing where it goes in future.