Multiple Braille Displays and One Screen Reader: A Proposal

Long suggested the “holy grail” of Braille displays is a multiple line display, that is, one with two or more lines of refreshable braille. At this time, due to cost, design complications, etc., etc., there are no multi-line Braille displays on the market. The advantages of such a device are numerous. Just a few that would be helpful for me:

  • The ability to read more text in context at one time
  • Ability to “look at” two points of interest in a document at once
  • Assign different lines to different windows or applications (comparable to previous item)
  • Rudimentary tactile graphics
  • Assign different lines to different devices (e.g., a PC and a smartphone)

At the time of this writing the closest that I am aware of to achieving any of these capabilities is Optelec’s Braille Controller Series Alva BC680 which allows for the connecting of two devices and dividing the line of braille between them. Using this feature it’s possible to get the effect of accessing two applications simultaneously by using two PCs. It is still not as good as a multi-line display has the potential to be because you’re giving up cell real estate from one application for the other, and you need two PCs. However, it’s better than nothing.

You may be wondering, why do you want to look at multiple points of interest at once? It is a case of efficiency. For example, one can look at a spreadsheet of transactions while simultaneously entering them into an accounting package and double checking that values are entered correctly, without having to switch between the applications. While this is easy to do visually, placing windows side by side and so forth, at this time using a screen reader with speech or Braille it is not possible. Instead the user must first work in one application, then switch to another application. And to just double check what something says in the first application he must switch back to it again. This uses valuable time and effort. And in some cases, switching to and from an application can have other undesirable results such as the application moving the focus to where it thinks is a more convenient place. For instance, each time I switch from a data entry page in QuickBooks Online and then back it highlights the entire contents of the field I was typing in which can easily lead to deleting all the contents when all I wanted to do was check something and append more information.

The Proposal

Many users now have access to two or more Braille displays. One is typically a larger model used with a PC such as 24, 32, 40 or even 80 cells. And a second display is a small portable display used with a smartphone or other portable note-taking device. These displays range in size from 12 cells to 18 cells. Recently the cost of Braille displays especially in the pocket-sized category has been coming down, to as low as $995 for the Braille Pen 12 and $1,795 for a Refreshabraille 18 with 18 cells. With this in mind it would seem the next logical step is to combine the use of these displays to get closer to a multi-line display.

With displays now connecting via Bluetooth® and USB it is not an issue to connect multiple devices to a PC. Hence it is up to the screen reader to take advantage of this ability and drive these displays. As discussed there are several opportunities for presenting more information to the user such as monitoring one application while simultaneously working in another. The only screen reader that currently does drive multiple displays is Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader for the Mac. It does not, however, have the feature to convey information from multiple points of interest. It is billed as a training tool allowing for multiple users to read the same information in a classroom setting. This is a start, now we need to take this a step further and empower the end user to be more efficient.