What's a RiVO?
The RiVO (remote interface to Voiceover) is made by Mobience, a company in South Korea, but they ship world wide. The RiVO is a small device, about as wide and deep as a credit card and roughly 1/3 inches thick. It has a total of twenty buttons, and is meant to be a remote control of sorts to VoiceOver users and a keyboard/media controller for everyone, sighted users included. You can flick, change the rotor, scroll pages, read, type, select and edit text, and more, all without once touching your iOS device. You can even control media playback and, for iPhones, phone calls. (No, you cannot use the RiVO to press numbers while in a call.) For an audio demonstration, listen to David Woodbridge's Rivo podcast
Who's It For?
Mobience is marketing this device to any iOS device owner who uses VoiceOver, and anyone who wants a truly compact keyboard and phone/media playback remote. Personally, I see it as more of a help to those with motor difficulties that make it difficult or impossible for them to easily issue touch screen gestures. However, Mobience says the RiVO can help anyone, and is a good way to increase productivity and confidence when using iOS with VoiceOver. It also nearly eliminates the need for touching your iOS device, so you can keep that tucked away and use a RiVO to issue commands - a company representative said he uses his as he drives, to control his music and issue other commands. Finally, it may prove helpful to those who, for whatever reason, have trouble remembering all the gestures needed to make full use of VoiceOver. It is complex enough in its own right, however, that this may not prove to be the case for everyone (see below).
As mentioned, the RiVO has the dimensions of a credit card, but is about 1/3 inches thick. The bottom face is slightly smaller than the top face, and all four sides slope in a bit to accommodate this design. In operating mode, it is laid out like this:
- Top face: there are twenty buttons, packed in very tightly. Each button is big enough, but there is no space between them. Twelve are laid out in the stander telephone keypad configuration, collectively called the B keys. On the left is a column of four buttons, called the L keys, and on the right is a second column of four buttons, called the R keys. Thin, hard-to-feel raised lines separate the L and R keys from the B keys. Along the top edge are the power and pairing LED indicators, just right of center.
- Front: the front edge, facing you when the RiVO is in operating position, contains the mini USB charging port and no other controls. Oddly, the narrow end of the USB cable faces up when inserted, instead of facing down as one might expect.
- Right face: nothing.
- Back face: nothing.
- Left face: this holds the power button, a thin rectangle used to turn the RiVO on or off. It is a press-and-hold button, not a slide or rocker switch or even something that is recessed when activated.
- Bottom face: in the same position on this face as the top left key is on the top face, you will find the pairing button. Pressing this slightly recessed button will place the RiVO into bluetooth pairing mode. The requisite writing (brand, model, and so on) is also present on this face.
The RiVO is very light, so light you might think you had a dummy unit at first. It is made of plastic, with no metal on any outer surface. I have no idea how tough this light plastic is, and for $129 I might have expected something that feels more durable. Still, for all I know, this plastic might be incredibly strong, but I'm not about to drop my RiVO to test that out. Mobience tells me the plastic is durable, and coated in a scratch-resistant material, but no hard numbers or drop tests were provided. That said, the weight, specifically the lack thereof, is impressive - I can easily forget I have the RiVO in my pocket, it is so light.
The buttons are all uniform: rectangular, a bit wider than they are tall, and slightly convex. The only exception is B5 (the 5 key on the phone-style keypad), which is the same size as all the other buttons, but concave to help it stand out. As mentioned above, there is a thin, raised vertical line that runs between the L keys and the 1, 2, and 3 keys, and another between the R keys and 3, 6, and 9. Mobience says this is for orientation, but until they confirmed that, it almost seemed like a flaw of some kind. It is almost invisible to the touch, and does not extend all the way down to the bottom row of keys. If orientation guides are the goal, they need to be made much easier to feel.
My RiVO has a black back and sides. The top is black due to the black buttons, which have gray, blue, and white writing that is difficult to read for anyone not fully sighted. A thin silver line runs vertically along each side of the phone-style keypad, separating it from the left- and right-most lines of keys. Overall, it looks as though low vision never entered into the RiVO's design; the writing is small, none of the buttons are different colors, no colors are used to divide up the buttons or button groups, and the charging port and on/off button blend into the shell of the RiVO. Of course, the target market is blind, not low vision, but high-contrast might be important to many users, and you will not find it in this generation of the RiVO.
As mentioned, the point of the RiVO is to provide a more convenient, push-button interface to VoiceOver. For instance, the 4 and 6 keys on the phone-style keypad perform left and right flicks, respectively, while the 5 key issues the double tap command. The 1 and 7 keys jump to the top and bottom of the screen, the 8 key is the Home key, and so forth. Unfortunately, not everything is so straightforward.
RiVO uses different modes to do different things. There are four typing modes, a navigation mode, and a media control mode. Unfortunately, RiVO includes no beep, vibration, or other indicator of which mode it is in, so you must remember, or press buttons and see what happens. It is easy enough to force a switch to the mode you want, at most a couple keypresses, as the RiVO can only be in one mode at a time and mode activation is not a toggle.
Worse still, the commands seem to be almost random, especially for switching modes or issuing Voiceover commands like speech or screen toggles. For example, L1 (the top left button) is used to control the rotor, yet also controls the media playback commands. It is also how you lock/unlock your iOS device, or toggle speech or the screen curtain, or Quick Nav. By itself, L1 is the escape key. While it is used to issue media-related commands, to lock media control mode, you do not use L1 at all, but rather L3 with the 1 key on the phone-style keypad.
L2 scrolls left a page, even though L3 moves between the four typing modes, and L4 enters number mode. To exit typing or number modes, you go across the RiVO to R4 (the fourth button down on the right, in other words, the lower right button). However, when in any typing mode, L1 becomes escape, R1 becomes delete, and other keys change functions as well. While all this makes a sort of sense after you spend some time in VoiceOver's practice mode, and the RiVO's designers had to do something to make only twenty buttons perform so many actions, it can still be confusing. The worst of it is that there is simply no way to know what mode you are in if you lose track or accidentally hit the wrong button. The best thing to do is return to normal mode with R4, then go back into whatever mode you wanted (assuming you are not editing text, since in that case R4 becomes a different key entirely). While not a big problem most of the time, you might find yourself playing music when you don't mean to, or thinking the RiVO is unresponsive because you entered a typing mode when no edit field is present. Speaking of which, it is important to note that no typing mode is entered automatically when the on-screen keyboard would normally be present, so once you double tap an edit field, you must enter the typing mode you want before you can type. To be fair, detection of edit fields is not possible for the RiVO, or any connected keyboard, simply due to the design of iOS. Still, it is something to keep in mind.
I've said a lot about typing. Yes, you can enter text with the RiVO's numeric keypad. This can be done in one of three ways: numbers, small QWERTY, or ABC.
- Numbers Mode is simply where each number key enters its number. You can press L4 to enter this mode, or hold down L4 as you press a number key to enter that key's number without leaving the typing mode you are in.
- Small QWERTY: this mode assigns letters to the ten number keys, but not in the usual order. The layout is difficult to get used to, as there is nothing similar of which i am aware. For example, the letters E, W, and Q are assigned to the number 1 key, in that order, while T, U, and Y are assigned to the 2 key.
- ABC Mode: this is the normal letters-to-numbers assignment many people already know. The number 2 has A, B, and C, 3 has D, E, and F, and so on.
In any mode, you can also enter symbols (punctuation). To do this, you would press the star key, enter your desired symbol, and keep typing - the RiVO puts you back in the last typing mode used once one symbol is entered.
Small QWERTY Mode is the default. Mobience tells me that it takes only 35% more pressing of keys than it would on a full-sized keyboard, despite having only nine keys to work with. The order of the assigned letters is also important. For instance, when you are typing, you will want an E more often than a Q, and so the E is first when you press the number 1 key. In this way, the total amount of kepresses is diminished, since the most common letters are first on each key. It is a smart layout, but again, not something you will be used to.
When typing, you also have access to selection and manipulation features. You can select text, cut, copy, and paste, undo, and redo. R4 is the key to be used for this, in conjunction with the B keys.
The RiVO is a small, light device that lets you do nearly everything you can on the screen of an iOS device, and then some, assuming you are a VoiceOver user. You can even type, and manipulate text. Those with motor problems may find this device to be particularly useful, as it removes the need to issue gestures while providing a way to control VoiceOver that does not involve multi-key commands on an external keyboard. Even sighted people may find it useful for typing, controlling media playback, bringing up Siri, answering or ending calls, manipulating text, and so forth. It is also worth noting that those who have the use of only one hand should be able to use the RiVO with little problem. The unit is small enough that I can easily press two keys simultaneously with one hand.
I've tried to like the RiVO, I really have. However, it is $129 but feels much cheaper than that. In addition:
- The command set is confusing and takes a lot of getting used to, which would not be so bad if there were some kind of help mode to describe each keypress. Entering practice mode in Voiceover helps, but Voiceover will not speak commands that only control RiVO, such as switching input modes. I can imagine a simple app being made for this purpose, one that can see everything the RiVO does and speak aloud what is going on. The command set needs to be complex since so much is done with so few buttons, but some assignments feel completely at odds with the rest. This is not a deal-breaker, but if you plan to use a RiVO, be warned that you will have to spend a lot of time getting used to it - it is not at all like picking up a new keyboard.
- There is no speaker or vibration motor in the RiVO. This means that the input mode, battery charge level, bluetooth status, on/off status, and so on cannot be communicated to the user at all. Mobience says that users get to know how the RiVO works after a while and don't need such cues, but I disagree. For instance, there is no way to tell if your battery is dead or if you held the power button too long and turned your unit off, or if the bluetooth connection dropped. While I can see not indicating input modes, there is no way around the fact that some way of communicating battery charge, on/off status, and bluetooth status would help a great deal.
- If someone with motor difficulties is considering a RiVO, be warned that the buttons all feel exactly alike and are not easy to distinguish unless you have good feeling in your fingers. I do, but I can see someone with nerve damage or other sensory problems in the fingers having a very hard time feeling which buttons are which, as they are all identical, or even feeling where one button ends and another begins. That said, the buttons are large and smooth enough that adding your own tactile identifiers should not be a big problem. Still, it would have been very nice to see much more thought put into the tactile representation of this device's controls.
- Speaking of which, the power button is just that: a button. It is not a rocker, slider, knob, or anything else that provides tactile feedback as to whether it is in the on or off position. The RiVO is set to turn itself off after five minutes of inactivity, so a simple push button makes sense there. However, I feel it would make even more sense to have the RiVO turn itself back on when any key is pressed, assuming the on/off control is in the on position. As it stands now, the user has no way of knowing if their RiVO is on but disconnected, off, out of battery, or malfunctioning for some reason.
- The build quality is concerning. While impressively light, the buttons feel cheap, similar to the little remotes that come with air conditioners. I feel like pressing anything too vigorously or in the wrong way might damage something. The plastic from which the entire device is constructed is similarly concerning. As I said above, it could be the world's strongest plastic, I have no way of knowing, but just holding it makes me doubt it would stand up to very much abuse. Mobience tells me their build quality is on par with most small bluetooth keyboards, whatever that translates to in terms of actual durability.
- According to Mobience themselves, the mini USB port cannot be used to upgrade the RiVO's firmware. If they ever come out with new features or bug fixes, it is unclear how existing users will be able to take advantage since there is no way to upgrade any current RiVOs. They say that the RiVO is already as comprehensive as it will get, which sounds to me as though no new upgrades are planned. Given that their firmware is already at 1.2.3, I find this an odd statement.
- The battery life is quite bad. My first full day with the RiVO, the battery died only about six hours after I pulled it off the charger. I had charged it all night, and had not used it constantly throughout the day, so it was in standby a good amount of those six hours (remember that it goes into standby after ten minutes of inactivity).
The RiVO is a nice idea that is, in its current form and in my opinion, overpriced and not as well thought out as it could be. I'd like to see, at the very least:
- better construction, not just in the shell of the device but also in the tactile layout and design of the buttons
- some way, perhaps via a vibration motor, to indicate system status (charge, bluetooth connection, current mode, and the like)
- a help mode, probably in the form of a companion app, to fully explain each keypress
The RiVO could be a very useful device, and I hope Mobience is taking notes for the next generation. This feels more like a public beta than a final product, but with improvements, the RiVO has the potential to be a very helpful device.
I also must commend Mobience on their public relations. I asked a few questions about the RiVO on a public email list, mentioning that I knew some of my clients (I am an AT instructor) might find the device helpful. A few days later, they emailed me privately, extending an offer of a discounted unit if I agreed to show it to my clients and provide Mobience with feedback. This was a very generous offer, and I have enjoyed working with Mobience. I hope to continue to do so, and I will certainly introduce my RiVO to any client I feel might benefit from it. However, I cannot currently recommend this product to very many people due to the problems above, and I will have to be forthright even with those who may find it useful. I wish Mobience the best of luck moving forward, and I hope to remain in contact with them, but the current RiVO line contains serious problems that need to be addressed. After all, they are charging over half the price of an entire iPod Touch, or about a third the price of an iPad Mini, just for the RiVO.
If you are a RiVO user, please sound off in the comments. I'd love to hear from people who have used the RiVO for longer than I have. If I have any facts or impressions wrong, please let me know and I will update this review accordingly.