The 99 dollar question: a Review of the Humanware Communicator App
By Scott Davert
For quite some time, deaf-blind users of iDevices have been able to use face to face communication with the public through the notes app. This consists typically of an iDevice (iPod, iPad, or iPhone) paired with a Braille display and Bluetooth keyboard. The deaf-blind person can then type using the Braille input keys on their display, while the sighted and hearing person types on the Bluetooth keyboard. All text shows up on both the Braille display and the screen of the iDevice. Now, there is another option on the market geared toward this specific purpose.
The Humanware Communicator (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/humanware-communicator/id550473985) is an app available in the App Store for $99. The app facilitates the described communication process with some added functionality. One can read the description on the link above for an understanding of the basics, so these will not be covered in this article. Instead, the purpose of this article is to go through the features of this app and to help the deaf-blind consumer and the professional working with deaf-blind consumers to determine whether they feel the app is worth $99. It assumes that the reader is already familiar with the pairing process of a Braille display with the iDevice and its various quirks. You can read more on this at http://www.applevis.com/guides/Braille-commands-iphone.
Also note that the pairing process for the Brailliant BI line specifically is much more simple, as no authentication code is required to pair the devices. Please see the manual for further explanation. Finally, this is only a review of the app itself, not the entire unit sold by Humanware which includes an iDevice and Humanware Braille display.
This app was tested using an iPhone 4 (CDMA) running iOS 5.1.1 with a RefreshaBraille 18 Braille display. The latest model of the Apple Wireless Bluetooth keyboard was also used. An iPhone is going to most likely be the best device for this app, since it’s the only iDevice that vibrates.
A note about a decision
The most competent professionals in the field of access technology will tell you that one of the most important things in teaching is assessment. Only with a proper assessment can a professional or individual determine the best solution for specific situations. As such, it's important to keep in mind when reading the below info that what works for one deaf-blind consumer may not work at all for another. Only through proper assessment can the best solution be found to match that individual's communications needs. Whether you're deaf-blind yourself or working with someone who is, trying out the various options available is the first step to making a successful plan.
App layout and explanation
Going from left to right, once you launch the app, you will have the following options: New Conversation, Greeting, Phrases, Archives, User guide, and About. The New Conversation icon will allow you to start a new conversation. The Greeting option allows you to change the greeting if you do not like the default one. Phrases allow you to use a form of shorthand to enter a few letters and then have a designated string of text be written. Archives allow you to save conversations that you have had. The User Guide allows you to learn about how to use the app. About contains links to both the Humanware and INLB websites along with the option to rate the app. Each of these features will be discussed in turn. One other important note to add is that once you launch this app, your device will be placed in “landscape” mode, which means the orientation of the touch screen should be moved so that the Home button is on the right side of the device facing the person using the touch screen.
When you launch the New Conversation feature, your device will make a sort of ringing soun, and, if you have an iPhone, it will vibrate. By default, the following text appears on the screen. “HI, I am deaf and blind. Use this unit to communicate with me. Click OK if you understand.” When the sighted individual taps “OK” the Braille display will come up with a blinking cursor. It’s now you’re turn to type a message. You can enter this message in either contracted or uncontracted Braille. This can be toggled with the command space with G on the Braille keyboard. Pressing space with dot 8 on the keyboard of the Braille display sends your message, and it appears with an onscreen keyboard located underneath it. The sighted person then types out their message in response and taps send to send the message to you. The message will then pop up on the Braille display. This cannot be used by another VoiceOver user though, since the keyboard is set up to work with sighted individuals. So as to avoid confusion, each time the deaf-blind individual types a message a “Q:” will proceed the message, and each time the individual with the phone replies, this message will be prefaced with an “A”. Each time the deaf-blind person sends a message, the phone will vibrate. For the individual using the Braille display, as the person is typing, you’ll see the word “Typing” pop up on the display. When the word typing no longer appears, this means you have most likely received a message, though then you can know for sure by moving right with space and dot 4 and you will find a blinking cursor.
Now for some findings based on feedback of my using this around my place of employment and in the community. Note that these are not formal results of any sort, just my findings from using the app for the past 2 months while I was using the beta version of this software. A common reaction, particularly amongst those who are less familiar with technology, was that many were intimidated with the touch screen keyboard. When a QWERTY keyboard was used, it did seem that people were less hesitant to communicate using this method, probably because they were more used to seeing a regular keyboard. Use of a Bluetooth keyboard seems to make the communication process much more fluid and quick.
When the conversation is complete, the Braille user can hit space with L to go to the top of the screen. You’ll find a back button there. Moving to the right one icon will place you on the save button, which will of course allow you to save the conversation. Now, let’s move on to the other options in the app.
Returning to the main screen of the app, and next to New Conversation is Greeting. This allows you to customize the greeting that will be displayed when you are attempting to get someone to communicate with you using the app. Within this setting, you can either clear or simply modify what is already written. You can do this in either contracted or uncontracted Braille, or you can also type it using the touch screen if you wish. One could argue that you can do this with the Notes application by simply typing up a predefined message to this effect, but the difference is that you will not be able to have the person on the other end confirm that they understand you.
One of the features that can come in handy with this app is the phrases feature. What happens is that you have a set of predefined phrases such as “can you help me with directions?” “I’m looking for bus #.” These phrases are activated by typing in the letters me followed by a dash (-) and then the correct number. So if, for example, I want to ask a sighted person for directions, once they tap “OK”, I can press me-00 followed by enter. This text is then sent to the iDevice. You can customize any of the messages, and there does not appear to be a limit on the number of predefined messages you can have. However, if you had 50 of them, one would think that could be difficult to remember which phrase corresponds to which message.
One could successfully argue that you already have this feature available in the iOS platform using shortcuts. This is very true, and it is also just as effective. However, doing this may be beyond the scope of training or beyond the level of knowledge of some users. It’s a convenience, as the shortcuts function in iOS has to be set up separate from the app. However, if you kno what you or your student wants as predefined messages, you can always set them up ahead of time. Just be sure that whatever shortcut you use is something not commonly used in your everyday language. Using Humanware’s example of me-00 is an effective way to do this. The difference is that you must hit the spacebar before the shortcut text will appear. To access this feature from the home screen of your iDevice, go into Settings, General, Keyboard, and then find it under the shortcuts heading.
You can access any saved conversations from here. You can even search through the archives for specific info if you wish. The archive file names are stored based on the date and time you saved them. You can rename the conversations to something else if you wish and also delete them. You can do these same things with the Notes app. In fact, the Notes app takes this further. You can go into a note, and share it via email the note or print it if you have a compatible wireless printer.
The User Guide, as with all Humanware products, appears to be well put together. Each section can be navigated to from within the Table of Contents and is set up in such a way that you should be able to read and understand the instructions. The User Guide does assume that you already know how to pair an iDevice with a Braille display. It would be nice if Humanware had included these instructions for those who are not yet familiar. One of the nice things the User Guide does do is provide the user with some commonly used Braille keyboard commands.
A couple of additions would be nice to help make the case for this app. It would be nice to be able to communicate from iDevice to iDevice, like it was possible to communicate with other Braille Notes running the Deaf-Blind Communicator software. Also, looking at iOS 6, there will be an accessibility option called “Guided access”. The purpose of this feature is to limit access to certain parts of the screen depending on what a user should be doing. While it is intended for education settings, it would be nice to be able to restrict the app so that if someone less familiar with the app hits the wrong part of the screen, it will not affect the performance of the app.
The answer and conclusion
It is certainly beyond my area of expertise to say whether this app may or may not be beneficial to every one individual who is deaf-blind. Certainly, the ability to create phrases within the app is a nice feature, as is having the greeting displayed and making the individual who is sighted acknowledge that they understand what is being asked of them. However, is it worth $99? For an advanced user of iDevices such as I am, certainly not. For a less advanced user who may not have the problem solving abilities required to make the communication happen, it could make a huge difference. Put in terms of how expensive the Deaf-Blind Communicator was, this app certainly is cheaper. However, for many, there are not enough features here to make this an app worth purchasing for $99. Certainly, if I were someone recommending equipment for the national Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, this would be a consideration, but only in limited situations with specific consumers. Also, while one may not wish to have something as expensive as an iDevice just laying around for anyone to pick up, you can purchase cases with lanyards that you can wrap around your wrist so that there is plenty of slack for someone else to look at the device’s screen. These are made for both the iPhone and iPod.