Talking digital magnifiers have been around for some time now. As the novelty wears off, the question is whether they are worth the price tag, and where they sit in the low vision landscape. At this stage, there doesn’t seem to be enough sales data to see which way the experiment is going. This much is certain: the talking digital magnifier has come a ways since I first saw the machine from Koba, which stood out as a great idea somewhat imperfectly executed. Tracking text in the magnified view and full page recognition are now available, both in my opinion major (and intuitive) improvements to the original concept. Traditionally, tabletop digital magnifiers have been a type of lowest common denominator of access technology – easy to use single purpose devices designed to serve to most tech-wary. There have been forays into more complex uses such as fine craft work and classroom use, the former setup requiring a moveable arm for the camera, the latter often using a laptop as a display, and neither typically using and XY table. Some models (especially some of the classroom ones) have introduced long distance viewing. These modifications represent, however, fairly simple and to some extent niche uses compared to the most common use. To put it in the simple terms, standard operation of a digital magnifier really only takes about three buttons – on/off, magnification, and color sets. Other uses add maybe another 3-4 functions. What makes the talking digital magnifiers potentially a game changer is that it shifts what an average user can do with it. Dressed up to look like any other CCTV, it is really something else altogether, a hybrid of the familiar desktop behemoth and stand-alone bookreaders like the SARA from Freedom Scientific or the ClearReader from Opetelec.
With the addition of speech to the digital magnifier comes another major change in the way people use them – with the introduction of more complex controls, including touchscreens. Much of the speech on these hybrids is inevitably driven by different kinds of controls – be it a control pad, a touch interface, or simply more buttons. It may scare of some of the more tech-phobic folks, but as more and more seniors especially get talked into using iPads by their grandchildren, there may be fewer protestations than before. What is more, the much talked-about aging baby boomers may be the first adopters of this new style of interface. Schools may also find a use for these dual media devices, and I’ve certainly seen some interest in using these as a way to give low vision students the option to switch easily between magnification and speech when fatigue sets in. The limiting factor there is the bulk of the thing – these “talkers” have the power of a full computer behind them, and you can tell when trying to lift one. In all scenarios, moreover, price is a big factor – adding the speech adds a minimum of about $500, and more typically closer to $1,000 to the cost.
General features aside, what is out there right now, and what are the differentiating features that anyone looking to buy one should keep in mind? The usual questions about brightness, contrast, screen size, color settings and the like obviously still apply. Here are some additional questions worth asking if you’re looking to buy one of these shiny new devices. I’ve not represented every model, but if you’re looking at another vendor or model, the questions still apply.
|Optelec ClearView Speech||Enhanced Vision Da Vinci||Merlin Elite HD||Abisee Eye-Pal Ace||GW Micro Vocatex Plus|
|Does it recognize part/whole page?||Whole||Part||Part||Whole||Part|
|Touch screen?||Yes||No – keypad||No – keypad||No – controls on the device||No – controls on the device|
|Portable?||No||No||No||Yes – 3.5 lbs||No|
|Document/photo storage||Yes||No||Yes (saves as image)||Yes||No|
|Price||$3,695 (True color), $3895 (HD)||$2,995||$3,295||$2,445||$7,345-$7,595|
I’d love to hear from any of you who are already using one of these. It’s early in the game yet, and it’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out, and how much – and what - use different people get out of this new version of the same old magnifier.