NLS Bard for iOS! A long awaited App
By Amy Mason
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (http://www.loc.gov/nls/ ) has provided accessible materials to blind (and otherwise print-disabled) patrons for more than 80 years. In keeping with trends of technology and the needs of its patrons, it has created and provided these materials in a number of formats over the years. Braille books, hard and flexible records, cassette tapes, Audio-Described VHS movies, electronic Braille files, and finally digital talking books, in both cartridge and downloadable DAISY format, have been provided by the organization at different times in its history. Suffice to say, it is a service that is of deep use and interest to many blind users, and the announcement that NLS was going to create an iPhone app was met with great fanfare and excitement. It’s been a long process, but the wait is finally over.
On Thursday, the long awaited and highly anticipated NLS Bard Mobile app was made available for users of iOS. (This event was only overshadowed in the blindness community of the United States’ consciousness by the release of iOS 7 on Wednesday, and the imminent arrival of the iPhone 5s on Friday.) If you haven’t yet downloaded it, you can find NLS Bard Mobile on the App store.
So, you ask, “How is it, and what does it do?” That’s an easy enough question to answer, let’s go on a brief guided tour, and I’ll show you the different options available.
When you first enter the app, you are asked to sign in and accept the BARD mobile Terms and Conditions. It’s all a very standard interaction, and doesn’t take more than a moment or two. Then you get to the good stuff.
On the Main screen of the app, you will initially find three tabs along the bottom of the screen. Once you start reading a book, there will be four. They are Bookshelf, Get Books, Settings, and Now Reading. We’ll just take a look at each of the four in order, and split out “Now Reading” to “Now Reading: Braille” and “Now Reading: DAISY”.
The bookshelf contains the lists of books and magazines you have downloaded to the device, and are able to open for reading. The first screen of the Bookshelf consists of categories, such as Braille and Audio Books and Magazines as well as the “Help” shelf which contains the app’s user guide, (which opens in the App’s browser window). Each of the other bookshelves can be opened and perused, and the books within can be ordered by “Title”, “Author”, or “Latest”. Each book can be opened or by flicking just once to the right, a user can select a “More information” button which gives the books’ synopsis and other relevant details.
I cannot overstate how much it is worth taking time to read the documentation. There are shortcut keys for reading Braille books, tips and tricks for getting more out of the app, and any number other useful bits of information (such as how to import Braille files from other sources into the app) in this truly excellently written documentation. Although I believe it is likely available somewhere on the web, I’ve been unable to find the documentation anywhere but within the app, so I would recommend spending a few minutes on this bookshelf to see what treasures you can find in the manual.
The “Get Books” tab contains “Wish List” Recently Added “Audio Books,” “Audio Magazines,” “Braille Books,” and “Braille Magazines”, and at the bottom, just above the navigation tabs, “Browse BARD”. From here, a user can peruse and download books from any of the Recently Added categories, or any titles they have already added to their Wish List. Each of these screens will list recent additions and Wish List entries, which allow a user to download books to the device, or read more about them. If a user wants a book that is not a recent addition to the collection, they must add that book to their Wish List in order to download it. This can either be accomplished via the “Browse BARD” menu option in the app, or on a PC or Mac.
Browse BARD is fairly interesting, in that it actually opens the BARD Mobile Web page in a browser within the app. A user can search for books exactly as they would on a PC in this interface, and choose to add them to their wish list. It’s easy to navigate, and well structured, but in comparison to the solution provided by Bookshare’s “Read to Go” app (which provides a more traditional in-app search interface) it feels somewhat clunky, and is likely to confuse some users.
The settings page contains “Audio”, “Visual” and “User account settings”. Audio account settings let a user set a default speed and tone selection for their audio books, set the app to play in the background, and lock the screen, as well as whether or not “skippable” content, such as footnotes and page numbers, is read or skipped in the app.
Visual settings allow a user to change the default text color and size, and Account settings allows for downloading over wireless networks, and allows a user to make changes to their account settings, (such as if they need to update their password.)
Now Reading: DAISY
Now we have finally reached my favorite parts of the app, reading books. After a book has been downloaded, (Braille or Audio,) a user can begin reading it by double tapping on the title. The “Now Listening” tab will automatically open and the user can flick through the options onscreen. Navigation opens a page where a user can move through different elements. Supported elements vary from book to book, just as they do on other platforms. Continuing in flick order, a user will see the current item they are in, such as “Chapter 4”, their current time position in the book, including an adjustable scrubber bar for moving location, and a bookmark button. Following this are a set of three buttons that work together, the button in the center of this set changes the level of navigation to move by, (phrase, chapter, etc...) and the left and right buttons in this set move backwards and forwards by the specified amount. Below these are rewind (which along with Fast forward can be held to move by bigger time jumps), play/pause and fast forward. Finally, there is a button that toggles another scrubber bar between speed and tone adjustment, and the bar itself.
It’s nice to have a wide variety of ways to control the text, and I am appreciative of the level of control that is available. Furthermore, from personal experience, I can say that the app works nicely with external control buttons on both the headphones and speaker docks I tested with.
Now Reading: Braille
It’s important to note that in order to read the Braille books, a user has to have access to an iOS compatible Bluetooth Braille display paired, and properly set to read the Braille files. In order to read a braille file, ensure that you have turned off contractions (this can be accomplished with Space-G) and turn on eight dot Braille with space 2-3-6. Once this is done, a user can begin to read the Braille file book.
The “Now Reading” tab in Braille is in many ways, laid out like “Now Reading” in an Audio book. Both contain the “Navigation” and “Book Mark” buttons, and buttons for jumping forward and backward by different levels of navigation. In between these two areas are the “Reading window” and information about a user’s location in the book. There are several differences between the two windows however, one of the most important is that unless you are starting a new book, flicking gestures (dot’s 1 or 4 and space on the Braille keyboard) are not as useful in the Braille “Now Reading” tab as you will lose your place if you flick into the reading window.
The Braille reading screen actually contains several Braille specific keyboard shortcuts which make Braille reading and navigating the book and reading screen much easier than they otherwise first appear. For example, it’s possible to search for text with dots 2, 3, and 4 (S), Move to the reading window with dots 1,2,3,5 (R), find the user’s location in a book with dots 2, 4, 5, 6 (W for “Where am I?”), Jump by element by typing, Dots 1, 3, 4 (M) select element type, dot 3 to go back, dot 6 to go forward). The Braille reading experience is well thought-out, and with a little practice, is a real joy to use.
My Personal Wish List
With any app, there’s always a bit of room for improvement, and NLS Bard Mobile is no exception. It’s a great app as it stands now, but… a girl can dream, right? I would expect that some of these things will not matter to many other users, and some are probably difficult to incorporate, but they are things I would like to see nonetheless, and I would expect I am not the only user who would welcome them.
Need I say more? Like many others, I listen to books when I am getting ready to fall asleep, and even with all the ways to navigate within a book, it would be great to be able to just set it to stop shortly after I expect to fall asleep, so finding my place the next day would be less onerous. The manual does offer a workaround using the device’s timer in the clock app, but being able to control this in the app itself would be fabulous.
Streamlined Book Search
I admit, the present book search method, (adding books to the wish list, and then downloading them) does work adequately. However, it just seems overly complicated, and rather confusing. I’d like to be able to browse the whole catalog within the app without the added step of having to add them to my wish list, and then exit the mobile site, and actually download from said Wish List. I certainly appreciate the wish list as an option, but I would also like to just add to my device immediately without the intermediate step.
Braille Word Wrap
I know that Braille books from NLS have traditionally been formatted 40 characters per line, and this has not changed. Sadly my Braille display has a 32 character line, and others have 16, 18, 20, 12, or 14 cells, which means that there are a lot of short lines encountered when reading a book that has been hard-coded to word wrap at the 40 character mark. I honestly don’t know what has to be done to fix this, but it would be a very welcome improvement. Furthermore, I know that this may make the quick navigation less easy to use as a user would be unable to possibly move by line, but for those of us who have odd length displays, it would be great to have a word wrap option, even with the limitations.
The NLS app is pretty great. I finally can carry one device with almost all my books on it, and I love that. The app itself is responsive and works quite well, the Braille navigation has been handled cleverly, and with the ability to side load other Braille books, it’s a pretty powerful tool. I hope to see further improvements in the future as there are small quibbles, but if you are an iOS owner with an NLS Bard account, you should download the app right now, if you’ve not already done so.