Focusing On Braille

Thanks to the folks at Canadialog, I have had the pleasure of using the diminutive Focus 14 blue braille display from Freedom Scientific. Easily held in one hand, the device crams a lot of functionality within a small package. One of many pocket-sized braille displays on the AT market, this one does have a few features which makes it stand out from other devices. Read on…

 

Let’s talk about battery life

Considering that I have used it solely on Bluetooth, I have been able to average about 24 hours without having to recharge it. Charging consists of plugging in a USB cable and power adapter; standard routine for anyone used to charging their smartphones and/or tablets. It takes around 3 hours to get a full charge. If you use the unit via USB cable on your PC or MAC, it will be trickle-charged. It takes about 8 hours to achieve full power using that method.

 

Braille Quality

An interesting trait to the focus family of braille displays is its flawless surface. Instead of the traditional braille cell caps used on other displays, the braille surface is comprised of one panel covering the whole area. This dissuades me from trying to pry the caps off, but that is a story for another day. It also enhances readability, as it is a much smoother reading experience. Having only 14 cells, I thought reading might be tedious. Turns out, once you get your reading rhythm going, the only thing that will slow you down is having to turn the page.

 

Controls

Besides being able to access your information via the braille display, you can also input text through the 8 key braille keyboard; where dot 7 is a delete key and dot 8 is the ENTER key.

Above each braille cell are cursor routing buttons. When pressed, the cursor is brought to that cell. This enhances quick editing. At each end of the routing key row are two round buttons that mimic a double tap on an iDevice. I am not sure why both were dedicated to this function, but that is a question for Apple Accessibility to answer.

Under the display is found an easily reachable spacebar, which brings me to the only thing that bothers me on the Focus. Instead of using the same key technology as the rest of the keyboard, the designers opted for a harder to press mechanism that has an annoying clicking noise as well. It is not a huge issue, but it is still irksome in my books. Keyboarding should be a balanced experience. Having to press harder for one key breaks the flow of my typing.

The rest of the keys on the display are used for navigation and content manipulation. They will vary in functionality dependent on what screen reader software or device that the focus is controlling. For example, the left most round button on the front of the focus will act like a back button while using Voiceover on an iDevice. The similar button on the right will start and stop services such as music, phone calls, Siri, etc.

There are two shift keys found on the front of the unit, under the spacebar. They do not seem to be used with VoiceOver for some reason.

The Keys to the left and the right of the aforementioned shift keys are panning buttons. These advance or move back the display in order to read sequentially through the environment. They are labeled with tactile arrow symbols. When the unit is awaiting USB and/or Bluetooth connection, you can use the right panning key to find out status information. You can also get to that status area at any time by briefly pressing the power button and pressing the right panning button.

 

Status information consists of: a numbered percentage of battery life remaining, followed by a circular shape when battery is being charged, or an upside-down heart-like shape when the keyboard is locked,

Finally, an indicator representing connection.

Annoyingly enough, while using VoiceOver, there is not a dedicated Home button on the device; as seen on other pocket braille displays. You can still get to the iDevice home screen by pressing SPACEBAR+dots 1, 2 and 5; that’s the letter H in braille, but that sort of defeats the idea of 1 handed functionality. Speaking of which, the navigation buttons are prominent enough to be used when the device is in a pocket. Refer to the links at the end of this entry for further information on Focus 14 Blue controls.

 

Conclusion

Although slightly bigger than other mini displays that I have tried in my travels, I have found it to be enjoyable to use, both as an iDevice controller and as a PC screen reader display. The JAWS screen reader implements the Focus displays quite extensively. Refer to the manual link found at the end of this entry. Fourteen braille cells give you just enough room for efficient reading, although I would not go any smaller than that. I have tried 12 cell displays in the past and simply got frustrated with the amount of manipulation needed to move through information. Following is a quick list of pros and cons I compiled while using the device.

 

PROS:

Small form factor,

Long battery life,

Distinctive keys,

Smooth reading surface,

Comfortable to hold in one hand,

Efficient reading,

Quiet brailing.

Nice array of navigation keys.

 

Cons:

No dedicated Home button for VoiceOver,

Repeated mode button in VoiceOver,

Loud spacebar.

 

Miscellaneous and Links

I was not sure under which heading I should place this particular issue. I thought of the RTFM heading (Read The Fluffy Manual), but settled on this instead. I was playing around with the Focus and managed to press the left mode button with the most right cursor routing button. This just so happens to disable the braille keyboard. For a few tense minutes, I thought that the Focus might be broken. I finally found my issue and was able to re-enable the keyboard by pressing right mode button with most left routing key.

Disabling the keyboard can be handy if you do not want keys to be pressed while in your pocket. The navigation keys will still work in this mode, so you can still navigate to your heart’s content.

 

Here is a feature I would love to see in these displays. The ability to turn off the braille display portion while still being able to use the navigation and keyboarding option of the unit. Sometimes, I could do without using braille and this keyboard is fantastic on its own. This would also conserve battery power.

 

There is more to discover about this device.

For the Focus 14 Blue user’s guide, visit: http://bit.ly/1nA1T0A

To visit Canadialog online go here: http://www.canadialog.com/

For an alternate blog entry on the Focus 14 Blue check out the following article from American Foundation for the Blind: http://bit.ly/1nAaeRL

 

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About mcourcel

I work within the Information Technology industry. More precisely, within the accessibility field. Oddly enough, I'm trying out WordPress to evaluate its ease of use and just to tinker with various topics of my choosing.
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