Braille Monitor                          November 2019

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The Status of the Orbit Reader

by Curtis Chong

Curtis ChongFrom the Editor: Curtis Chong loves Braille and technology, so when they come together, you can bet he is going to put himself right in the middle of them. So it is that he writes this article about the Orbit Reader, the first-of-its-kind reader for less than six hundred dollars. This product was the first to come from the Transforming Braille Group, one in which the National Federation of the Blind was a founding member and has been very active both with ideas and the money to finance them. Here is what he says:

The Orbit Reader 20 was intended to be an attempt by the Transforming Braille Group to radically reduce the cost of refreshable Braille technology. When this device first came on the market back in 2017, it was the least expensive refreshable Braille display/note-taker, being priced at $449 and sold in the United States by the American Printing House for the Blind. At that time, there were both supply problems (there were not enough Orbit Readers available) and manufacturing issues (which showed up as Braille defects in the early units).

I was among the small handful of enthusiastic buyers who jumped at the chance to purchase an Orbit Reader 20 for $449. Since my initial purchase, I have had to send my unit in twice. The first problem was that, after a few months, some dots in the display simply did not come up. The second problem (which occurred early this year) was that my charging port stopped working. Both of my issues were resolved within a matter of weeks, and both issues required me to send my unit to Orbit Research.

For people who would say that this reflects badly on the Orbit Reader, I would point out that refreshable Braille technology is, by its nature, extremely fragile because of the many small parts needed to move the Braille dots. It is often the case that Braille displays need to be sent in for cleaning or repair, and the Orbit Reader is no exception.

The American Printing House for the Blind seems to have been the only organization in the United States selling Orbit Readers. Two years ago, when I purchased my unit, there were not enough of them to meet the demand. Customers were often told that the Printing House did not have any Orbit Readers in stock, and when units did become available, they were sold out within a matter of days.

Another issue with the Orbit Reader was that its firmware could not be updated unless a person was able to run an update utility on a Windows computer. This was not a problem for those of us who used Windows on a regular basis. However, there was a strong sentiment expressed within the community of Orbit Reader users that firmware updates needed to be available to people who did not have ready access to a Windows machine. After all, other popular blindness products could be updated simply by copying the update to an SD card. Why not the Orbit Reader?

It has been two years since the Orbit Reader hit the market. Since that time, two notable events have occurred. First, in April of this year, the American Printing House for the Blind announced that it was removing the Orbit Reader from its catalog pending further negotiations with Orbit Research. Secondly, on June 6, Orbit Research announced a new bootloader program which would enable the Orbit Reader to be updated from a binary file copied to an SD card.

On the plus side, there does not seem to be a problem with supply; it took about a week for an Orbit Reader that I ordered to reach me.

As for the bootloader update which enables the Orbit Reader firmware to be updated from the SD card, units purchased from this point forward will have the bootloader update installed; future firmware updates can be installed directly from an SD card onto which the update has been copied. For Orbit Readers already sold, the process of updating the bootloader requires both a Windows computer and a firmware version that is at least at level B0.00.00.55r02.

In the United States, the Orbit Reader can be purchased directly from the manufacturer, Orbit Research, for $599. Orbit Reader 20's can once again be purchased from the American Printing House for the Blind for $699, and during this year's convention of the National Federation of the Blind (and some time thereafter) Orbit Reader 20 units were available for $549 (you can now purchase Orbit Reader 20's from our Independence Market for the retail price of $599)—as long as there are units available.

While the Orbit Reader has had its share of difficulties, it is today a robust refreshable Braille technology with very good Braille. It is disappointing that more organizations are not selling and supporting this viable product.

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