Blog Date: 
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Jennifer Dunnam

In the latest version of Apple's iOS, four Braille-related developments not only greatly improve the experience of using Braille with mobile devices, but also serve as a model for how the use of Braille can be integrated into today's digital technology. Three of these improvements relate to the interaction of iDevices with external refreshable Braille devices. The fourth does not require a Braille device at all—we'll start our review there.

Braille Screen Input

The ability to type in Braille for text entry on an iOS touchscreen has been available for some time via third party applications. Now, this feature is integrated into the operating system and, for those who know how to type Braille, can provide the most efficient on-screen method of text entry currently available. Not only can Braille be typed directly to create text messages, social media posts, web searches, notes, email, and more, but it is even possible to enter the device's unlock passcode using Braille input—a much more secure, silent option than having the speech report the passcode while the user finds and executes the numbers.

The Braille screen input feature is enabled by adding it to the rotor, under the VoiceOver settings. To invoke Braille screen input, simply switch to it via the rotor; to exit, turn the rotor to a different value.

Braille entry is done in landscape mode. By tilting the device, the screen can be used either in table top mode, or facing away from the user so that the fingers can be positioned naturally in front of it. There is an explore mode to help the user ensure that the fingers are oriented correctly. This user has found the "screen away" mode on an iPhone the easiest to achieve quick and accurate results, but likely a bit more practice with the table top mode would yield better results.

With the screen facing away, the index, middle and ring fingers are placed evenly along the left and right edges of the screen. The index fingers invoke dots 1 (left hand) and 4 (right hand); the middle fingers dots 2 and 5, and the ring fingers dots 3 and 6. In tabletop mode, the six fingers are basically lined up horizontally to activate dots 3, 2, 1, 4, 5, 6. In either mode, one finger swiped to the right invokes a space, and two fingers swiped to the right starts a new line. One finger swiped to the left makes a delete/backspace.

The Braille can be typed in any available language on the iOS. Obviously, without a Braille display, the nonvisual output of the Braille entry is speech only.

Continuous Reading

Previously, when reading in Braille on an iOS device with a refreshable Braille display, multiple keystrokes were necessary in order to move to the next page of a document. Now, when a panning key is pressed at the bottom of a page, it simply scrolls to the next page. This makes for a much smoother reading experience in apps like iBooks, Kindle, and particularly in Voice Dream where turning pages was especially cumbersome. The feature can be turned on or off in VoiceOver's Braille settings.

Number Issue Fixed

In previous iOS versions, often, when a phone number or other string of numbers was encountered during reading, the Braille output was basically gibberish, requiring the user to listen to the speech to determine what it said. Now these numbers display clearly, increasing the reliability of Braille as the primary output method.

Automatic Translation

In previous blog posts, we have mentioned problems with six-key Braille input and Apple's prior attempt to address the problems. In short, the automatic translation from Braille to print required the user to type quickly to avoid unwanted translation results, and editing in Braille was also very cumbersome for this reason. Apple's first attempt to address this issue made it possible to toggle off automatic translation and type more slowly without generating unintended results, but this attempt introduced a new problem—no Braille showed on the display until the user spaced away from the word being typed.

A fix is incorporated into iOS 8, and although it is not perfect, it is better. Now, when "automatic translation" is turned off in VoiceOver Braille settings under "Braille display input", the user can type in contracted Braille at whatever pace and view the word on the display while it is being typed. The word in progress is shown on a line by itself and is preceded by a full Braille cell. The word is not actually incorporated into the text field until the space, tab, or space with dots 45 is pressed (note that "enter" does not activate the word). If you know during the typing of the word that you have made an error, you can backspace and correct the error without risking the introduction of unwanted junk. For example, if, during the process of typing the word "lake," you discover that you've accidentally typed an l where you meant to type a k, you can simply backspace over the l and type dots 13 for the k, and go on. 

Things become less ideal, however, if you wish to edit words that were already incorporated into the main text that you are typing. If you type the rest of a sentence and then discover your error in the word "lake" a few moments back, you can use a cursor routing button to place your cursor after the l to backspace over it. However, if you simply type the k at this point, you'll get the contracted meaning of dots 13, which is "knowledge." To get just a plain k, type a Braille grade 1 indicator (dots 56) before typing the k. Also, when editing previously typed words, it is best not to type contractions.

Although there are still items on the wish list for improvements to Braille in iOS, this new release represents significant progress toward the seamless use of Braille in digital communications.