by Paul Edwards
A mere three years ago, acquiring a braille display was an extremely expensive proposition. Most of us who relied on our own funds just had to gaze longingly at braille displays and wish. Until 2009, braille displays were primarily used as terminals that would allow folks to read and write on their computers using braille instead of speech. In the last few years everything has changed and, in the future, it is likely that they will change more!
Now there is a substantially more compelling reason to buy a braille display. This is because iOS products such as the iPhone, iPad and iPod allow us to "pair" our devices so that we can read and write using braille. It is certainly possible to use the on-screen keyboards on i-products, and there are a number of apps that have emerged that make that process easier. With newer i-devices you can use Siri, the built-in assistant, to write notes or send texts, among many other things. However, none of these approaches comes close to the convenience of being able to use a braille display with its own keyboard to interact with your i-device. Once you have made the Bluetooth connection, you can communicate faster than your sighted peers using your braille keyboard and can write in grade 2 braille as well. With the arrival of iOS 7, the newest version of the operating system for i-devices, you are not required to be quite as careful how you write it. In earlier incarnations of i-devices, you have to write whole words pretty quickly or they will suddenly become what the braille contraction they represent is. For instance, if I wrote the letter "P" as the first letter of my first name, Paul, and got distracted for a moment, it would suddenly become the word "people."
With iOS 7 you can turn automatic braille translation off and your speed is not so important. You will only see your translated word when you press the space bar or when you use the space bar with dots 4 and 5 to ask your device to translate. This is a huge step forward, particularly for new braille readers or children who may not be quite as fast as us old hands are.
I should also say that the process of "pairing" can be a little tricky. You have to instruct your i-device and your braille display to find each other using Bluetooth, which involves entering a code at least on your i-device. You have to be able to do this quickly, and some people find this difficult to do. The good news is that once you are "paired," your i-device and your braille display will remember each other and establishing the connection between the two is effortless.
The second thing that has happened is that the price of braille displays has come way down and braille display makers have recognized that creating small, very portable braille displays that we can carry with us to use with our i-devices is a burgeoning market. So there is now a whole range of options out there that allow us to talk to our i-devices. At the very bottom end, there are just keyboards. You can get a small Bluetooth qwerty keyboard for well under $100 and a braille keyboard for $200 or so. These will allow you to write on your i-device and let you use the large print or the speech on your i-device for reading. And, much more significant, braille displays that used to cost an arm and a leg and an arm now only cost a single limb. The least expensive is just over $1,000 and there are at least five displays that can be bought for less than $2,000.
If you already have a notetaker such as the Braille Sense or the Braille Note or the Braille Plus 18, you can use those devices to "pair." However, they are much more expensive than simple braille displays. Most of the braille displays are just that. They can act as Bluetooth or USB displays and can be used with your i-device and with your computer. They let you write and read between the two devices, and that is all they do. There are two braille displays that do more. One is the Braille Edge from HIMS, but it costs around $3,500. The other is the device I am going to review in this article. It is called the Mini Seika. It is available from Perkins Products and you can explore its characteristics at www.perkinsproducts.org.
The Mini has 16 braille cells, pairs beautifully with i-devices and includes drivers that allow it to work either via Bluetooth or USB as a braille terminal with your computer. It has a dongle, which is a little device that allows you to connect to your computer without cables using Bluetooth. This is very handy.
What distinguishes the Mini from other braille displays in its price range is that it is more than just a braille display. It comes with a micro-SD card already in the machine and a USB thumb drive that can be attached. It includes a rudimentary note-taking program, a calculator and a clock. This means that you can use the Mini to take notes on its own and can store books directly on its card or on a thumb drive which you can read on the machine on its own. The device, with shipping, is likely to cost under $1,700.
Essentially, then, you have many of the advantages of much more expensive notetakers at the same price as most of the competitive braille displays which do not include these extra features. In fairness, I should say that you can use any number of programs on your i-device to read. BARD Mobile, the Bookshare app and other commercial applications will let you use all of these inexpensive braille displays to read. You can also use "notes" or a whole range of apps to write and store information using your i-device. However, for me at least, having a really portable braille display that lets me take notes and read books independently of other devices is a big deal.
The device is about six inches long, four inches from front to back and about an inch thick. It weighs next to nothing (7/10 of a pound according to its manual). It arrives with a leather case and a strap that allows you to hang the Mini around your neck. If you put the device flat on a desk oriented correctly, furthest away from you are eight braille keys. Some people find them small, though for me, they have been relatively easy to get used to using. Moving toward you, you come to 16 cursor keys that allow you to move to the corresponding braille cell. Next closest is the braille display itself, which is very readable. At each end of the display is a button that allows you to move backward or forward by display. Finally, closest to you, are, from left to right, a joystick, two smallish controls either of which act as a space bar, and another joystick. The joysticks are interesting in that they allow you to do different things depending on whether you are "paired" or not. I would personally have liked to be able to use the joysticks themselves instead of the buttons to move back and forth by displays, but you can't do that! You can use them to move up and down through menu items or lists, though, and this works well. I have spoken to several people who find the location and size of the space bars an issue. I freely admit that it is very different from other braille displays. You really do have to use your thumb for these controls and, since most of the commands are chords which require you to press the space bar with another character, this may be an issue for you.
Overall, I have found the unit performs well. I don't think I would use it to write the great American novel but, for quick notes and interacting with i-devices, it's great! There are a few anomalies that I should point out. The clock works just fine, but reading it may not seem intuitive. The time includes the letters h, m and s before the hours, minutes and seconds. There is supposed to be a feature that allows you to read text files in braille. That feature is not ready for prime time and needs work. (I should say that I am operating with build 1.14 and, if there is an upgrade, some of what I am reporting may not be current.)
I have found the interface very easy to learn. The manual, as is true with many newer products from overseas, does not exactly have the most readable English but it is, virtually always, comprehensible. It is on the machine and on a CD that comes with the unit which also has drivers for various screen readers. It can also be downloaded from Perkins, by the way, so you can explore exactly how it works before you buy. I have not found that 16 cells is a problem. I have used 18 or 20 cells on braille displays in the past rather than 32 or 40 because I prefer a device with a small footprint.
The Mini claims a battery life of 10 hours and indicates that substantial use of the USB or Bluetooth features may limit this. I find the claim very conservative. I have never had a problem using the Mini all day, even when paired most of the time.
Overall, I think the Mini has a lot of things going for it. I certainly encourage folks to explore it. There was a time when I would not have expected to be able to get a braille display, let alone a rudimentary notetaker with braille for anything like this low price. I have found the folks at Perkins Products very easy to deal with and am absolutely satisfied that I made a good decision when I decided to buy the Mini earlier this year. Perhaps this review will encourage other braille display manufacturers to consider including more than just standard braille display elements on their less expensive models.
I hope Seika will continue to add functionality to its device as well. For me the Seika represents wonderful value for money and a clear indication that we have the right to expect more from displays in this price range than pure braille displays.
I feel impelled to make one last point. There is currently work being done to test a range of options that would allow for the creation of different and substantially cheaper braille display options. The approach taken by the Seika and all its competitors has remained the same for the last two decades. There is some evidence to suggest that, in the future, this cheap braille effort will bear fruit. I have no idea when this is likely to happen, but I think it is fair to say that we are not likely to see actual products for sale for a couple of years. I am convinced that anybody who actually is a confirmed braille user can revolutionize the way they use their i-devices. Essentially with any braille display, you will suddenly have access to most of what you can get from a notetaker. Don't let your timidity hold you back! For me, despite the shortcomings I have mentioned, the Mini Seika is by far the best option out there among inexpensive displays. Do you agree?