Are deaf-blind users free to Communicate with this free app?

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

For quite some time, deaf-blind users of iDevices have been able to use face to face communication with the public through the notes app. This consists typically of an iDevice (iPod, iPad, or iPhone) paired with a Braille display and Bluetooth keyboard. The deaf-blind person can then type using the Braille input keys on their display, while the sighted and hearing person types on the Bluetooth keyboard. All text shows up on both the Braille display and the screen of the iDevice. Now, there is another app on the market geared toward this specific purpose.

HIMS Chat is a free app available in the App Store and works with Braille displays that are compatible with the iOS platform. It is designed to make this face to face interaction a bit easier, offering some features that may assist in more quickly achieving the communication desired by the user. But does it work as advertized? Read on to find out.

Equipment Used:
This app was tested using an iPhone 4 (CDMA) running iOS 6.01. A Braille Edge and Refreshabraille 18 were the two displays used throughout this review. The latest model of the Apple wireless Bluetooth keyboard was also used.

App Lay-out and Basic Explanation:
The first icon on the app is "New Chat". This lets the user start a new conversation. To the right of this option is the "Greeting" button, though Braille and speech output do not call it a button for some reason. This allows you to customize the greeting displayed once the user chooses the "New Chat" button. Continuing along the top of the home screen of the app, is the "Macros" button. This feature will allow you to set up phrases that can be activated with just a couple of keystrokes while in a chat. Located directly to the right of the "Macros" button is the "Saved Chats" button. This will allow the user to retrieve conversations they have archived. The final button on this screen is the "User Documentation button". This is supposed to provide the user with instructions on how to use the app, but whether it actually does so will be discussed further in another section. Finally, you have the developer's information as the last thing on the home screen of the app. We'll go left to right in this same order and review each option in greater detail below.

New Chat:
The first option is to start a new chat. When the deaf-blind user launches this for the first time, the following greeting appears, along with the phone vibrating once. “Hello, I am deaf-blind. I can communicate with you using this device. To start a conversation, please double tab the ok button.” Aside from the fact that the gesture is called a “double tap” and not a “double tab”, the name of the gesture can be slightly confusing to a sighted individual who is unfamiliar with what it means to double tap something. This certainly seemed to be the case on the few sighted individuals in the public I tried this app with. Thankfully, you can customized the greeting to fit your needs, so I switched mine to “Hello, I am deaf-blind. Please use this device to communicate with me. Please tap the ok button twice quickly to begin. Thank you!”
Once the individual has selected the OK button, a blinking cursor in the form of dots 7 and 8 will appear in the first cell of the Braille display. This indicates to the deaf-blind individual that they can begin typing utilizing the input keyboard on their Braille display. Once a message is typed, press Enter with Space (dot 8 and Space) to send the message, or use Space with dot 4 to navigate to the send button, and activate this. The message should then appear on the screen of the device. However, here is where things start to get tricky.
Once the enter button is pressed, the virtual keyboard does not always automatically appear on the screen of the device. In these instances, visually, the previous message sent is there, but with no onscreen keyboard. From the Braille user’s perspective, a message flashes up saying “conversation started, your turn”, followed by a blank display. Moving to the left with the Braille display, the user will find a Save button, a Continue button, the HIMS heading, and finally a Back button. It is not possible to view the message the Braille user just typed. One must first make the virtual keyboard visible by pressing space with dots 1-4-6 on the Braille display’s keyboard. The person using the iDevice can then type a message and press send. On the display, the deaf-blind user will see “my turn” followed by “u:” and then the typed message. Once this message has been read, the deaf-blind user can then type their reply as noted above. Once the deaf-blind user presses space with dot 8, they will then see their message after an “H:” appears on the display. The process goes back and forth, or at least it’s supposed to, but often times the virtual keyboard will become hidden and the chat history becomes invisible to the deaf-blind user. The person using the Braille display can then do the command to retoggle the virtual keyboard, but it will again disappear at what seems to be some random interval.
If the user is willing to put up with this flaw, and successfully carries on a conversation, they do have the option of saving the chat for later reference. This option is a button to the left of the chat history, if available, otherwise, it is located directly left of the empty area where one would type. When activated, the app asks: “Could you save a conversation?” Well gee, I’m not sure, that’s up to the app whether I can save it or not, right? To exit the chat, one can activate the Back button, located in the upper left corner of the screen, or found by doing the Command-Space with L on the keyboard.

From the main screen, to the right of the New Chat button is the Greeting. Activating this icon will allow the user to modify the greeting displayed when a chat first begins. When activated, focus is set to the greeting, with the cursor located at the end of the current greeting. Filling out the greeting is done with standard editing and typing iOS commands. The only other option which one can find, is to hit space with dot 4 to get to the clear text button. Once this is activated, the user is returned to the text field, and can type a new greeting. The greeting is automatically saved, and activating the back button located in the standard place will return the user to the main screen.

As noted above, the Macros feature allows the user to use shortcuts to type out longer messages. Activating this option will present the user with the back button, the macros heading, and then the number of each macro followed by the message associated with that number. For example “00 my name is”. The idea behind the macros that are already defined is that the user will fill each out according to his or her needs. To edit a macro, select the macro you with to edit, and then, when the VoiceOver cursor lands on the text field, simply edit the text accordingly. Just like with the greeting feature, there is a clear text button, and activating the back button in the upper left hand corner of the screen will save your changes. Be careful, though, as it seems the only way to not save your changes is to go to the home screen of your iDevice, then get rid of the app with the App Switcher.
While in a chat, one can use a macro by entering “me” followed by a dash (-) and the associated number. For example, if I had the first macro (number 00), programmed in as “my name is Scott”, to get this text to appear, I would type me-00 followed by the spacebar on the Braille keyboard. The text of that macro would then appear. This process works well, with results typically appearing nearly instantaneously after issuing the command.

Saved Chats:
So, the app asked me before if I could save a conversation, and as it turns out, I can. When you go in to the saved chats option, you’re presented with the back button, the title of the section, followed by chats that have been saved. By default, each chat is saved based on the date and time you saved it. If you go in to a saved chat, you will find the standard back button and title, followed by options to rename and delete the conversation. To the right of this is the saved conversation. Renaming and deleting saved chats seem to work without bugs.

The user documentation only details how to pair a Braille Sense U2 with an iDevice. You can review it just fine through Braille, but the developers sort of forgot to switch the user documentation to English as the language, so the Korean speech synthesizer in VoiceOver will read this documentation. The only reason I am able to tell you all of the above is through trial and error.

While the price is right, I cannot recommend this app for face to face communication to people working with, or individuals who are, deaf-blind. The communication process itself stalls and becomes more of a hindrance than a help in most situations. HIMS is apparently coming out with an update to this app at some later stage, and an article will be posted reviewing these changes once they are released.

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