This review of the Dot Watch provides an additional point of view to the already-excellent reviews posted here on AppleVis and Access World. I purchased the watch at the end of 2019, two and a half years after its launch.
The first time I checked the time on the Dot Watch, I was struck by the strong conviction that a digital Braille time display is the "right" way to tell time. I'm kicking off with that statement, because it surprised me so much. Hearing the time has always taken longer than any tactile watch, in addition to being too "public." I grew up with analog AFB and REIZEN Braille watches, though, and I also own (and adore) a Braille pocket watch--nor have I ever had an issue with the hands moving while I checked the time. But not only is the digital readout more precise, it seems now cognitively faster to process. Or, maybe it's something I can't put into words without resorting to saying "it's cool."
That's one reason why it's hard not to really like the Dot Watch. The reason I bought one, though, has everything to do with the ability to silently check incoming calls and alerts. During meetings or when I'm teaching a class, it's invariably my phone that goes off; and, frankly, I sometimes need to know what it is, rather than leaving my phone in my office. My Braille skills are regrettably very poor, but one-line messages on a four-cell display are within my power, particularly when much of the test is boiler-plate like "message received from..." In fact, I think my Braille literacy is more likely to improve through the watch than when I attempted to relearn it using a 40-cell display, thanks to the output being fairly repetitive and simple. There's also a Braille tutoring feature in the app that allows the user to type arbitrary text and read it on the watch.
When an alert comes in, the watch vibrates once if it's a notification, or repeatedly if it's a call. Unlike incoming calls, notifications do not immediately appear on the watch face. Instead, the user activates the watch, rotates the crown to "noti," selects, then hits select again on the #1 that will be on the display. This stage is the numbered list of the 50 most recent notifications. The arrangement is a little cumbersome, but makes sense when considering how many Facebook or Twitter notifications many people will receive in a day. Notifications require some scrolling to get to the pertinent information, which does take a second or so. For example, alerts from my security cameras read "Arlo - motion is detected on driveway." Since motion detection is the only kind of alert I get, only the first and last words of this alert are the data I'm after. Incoming messages also require some scrolling to get to the text. Still, they absolutely do the job. Even not withstanding the need for discretion in a meeting, moreover, any Braille user can attest to the value of getting some information at one's fingertips instead of through synthetic speech. More than anything else, though, I'm finding the ability to reject robo-calls from my wrist really nice. This is done by simply hitting the home button after checking the watch to see what the incoming call is.
Ok, so what does it look like? I've been confused by physical descriptions in previous reviews, so I'll give it my own shot. It's half an inch thick, 43mm in diameter, and rather industrial. On the vertical side that will be pointing toward your fingers, just where the stem on an analog watch would be, there is a small knob they call a "crown," and this is flanked by two buttons, select and home. Everything starts with pressing the select button, and then menu options are selected by turning the crown and hitting select again. Home puts the watch into standby or, when held down while reading a message, deletes a notification or memo. A few commands, like reset, require home and select to be pressed together, a maneuver I find difficult.
The watch face can be thought of as three zones. The top third is blank, the Braille cells occupy the middle, and the two capacitive buttons for pan back and pan forward occupy the bottom third. Capacitive buttons deliver no tactile feedback, but are simply pressure-sensitive areas. As such, there's some risk of inadvertently brushing these buttons, but it hasn't been a major issue.
A barely-detectable "skin" covers the entire face in order to protect the pins from dust, moisture, and grime. The watch ships with three additional skins, which the company estimates will need to be replaced every three months. Currently, they sell replacements in packs of five, ten, or even more, for which shipping is almost as much as the replacement pack. This adds less than $2 per month to the cost of ownership.
Finally, the watch band is a strap of thin metal material with a magnetic strap end that one can loosen or tighten to fit by overlapping the end of the watch band to a greater or lesser extent. The band then holds in place by the magnet's contact with the metallic strap. I find it loosening frequently, but never by much. The band comes in wide or narrow versions.
The charging cradle is a small and very light magnetic pad about the same size as the watch body itself with a short integrated USB cable. Properly positioning the watch on it took some practice. The crown should line up with the cord, as it turns out, and then some jiggling is necessary for it to seat completely on the cradle. It charges in a couple of hours.
Other reviewers have commented on the quirks of the Braille cell technology in use here. The pins are definitely easy to "mess up" while the cells are refreshing, a fact that makes the seconds time readout basically impossible to use. I've also checked the date, only to find that it is the ninety-first month, or that the time is "09of7." My wrist coming into contact with a door frame cause two pins to raise, but pressing the home button cleared them. The full four cells takes a little less than a second to refresh, which I find perfectly acceptable. The action of the pins is audible, which I actually find cool. After a short learning curve, problems with reading the display become rare, but it's a degree of unreliability that would not cut it on the mainstream market. I knew what I was getting into, though, and am satisfied with its performance. It's actually an entirely different set of issues that I find more frustrating, as I'll discuss below.
Software and firmware are both subject to change, so the issues I've encountered serve mainly as a snapshot of product development as of late 2019. That's more than two years after initial launch, during which time Dot Corp released an upgraded unit. What my experiences point to, in my view, is perhaps a need for the company itself to re-evaluate some of its development, testing, and customer service procedures.
The first sign that all was not ready for prime time came during initial setup. When the app reached the default language screen, there was no way to progress to the next step. I had to close the app and restart it, at which point the watch was ready to use. I suspect this is only true when Voiceover is running, since any developer would have fixed this the minute they encountered it during testing. I'm prompted to wonder how much testing they do with Voiceover. A more significant issue is that, at the time I'm writing this, the Dot Watch IOS app has accessibility issues. The Settings>Output screen contains sliders for adjusting auto-scroll rate, vibration intensity, and sleep delay. None of these sliders currently works with Voiceover. Customer support replied that they are aware of the bug whereby "adjust value" on the rotor will fail to save the slider positions, but they were unaware that double-tapping and dragging the slider doesn't work, either.
I therefore had a sighted assistant raise the vibration intensity to maximum. The default setting is very subtle, whereas I need "frying pan to the head" strength sometimes; and she also lowered the standby setting to something too short for me to even read the time before she jetted out the door to get to a meeting. At that point, my watch began pulsing like a heart beat every couple of seconds for some reason, and nothing I could do would stop it. The app crashed every time I navigated back to the offending output settings page. I had to unpair the watch from the app, forget the device in Bluetooth settings, turn the watch off, and master reset it by holding down the home and select buttons, after which I could set it up anew. Good times!
Whenever I reboot my phone, the watch stops receiving notifications. It happens, too, sometimes when I turn Bluetooth off on the watch and back on (which is accomplished by holding down select while on the Bluetooth connection menu item). The remedy seems to be to clear the Bluetooth settings and re-pair the watch, which is done by holding down select and home together while on the Bluetooth watch menu item, then approving the pairing on the phone. There are definite problems in BT-ville. Dot, Inc. says they're aware of this instability.
There's more. In theory, there is a "find my watch" feature in the app that will cause the watch to vibrate for five minutes or until a button is pressed. In practice, though, the vibration of the watch is not audible from more than a few feet away, so the best chance of finding the watch is if it's on your wrist already--that scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility for me!
Meanwhile, double-pressing both home and select simultaneously is supposed to set off an alarm sound on the phone, much like a Tile or similar product. it's flaky and far from functional, however. In my experience, it only works if the phone is unlocked and running the Dot Watch app, which lets out any real use case. When my phone is locked, hitting the button sequence to activate the alarm will make the phone vibrate once, but with no alarm sound, and pressing the buttons again will have no effect at all. If the Dot Watch app is not at least running in the background, the feature likewise doesn't work.
While all this sounds like a lot, they're pretty manageable and don't often interfere with operations throughout the day. I also expect most of the issues to be fixed in software. There was a software update right before my watch arrived, but no updates for the year before that, according to the App Store version history. The issues do bring us to the next topic, however.
Dot Incorporation is eager to support your active, independent lifestyle and ensure that you are completely satisfied with your Dot Watch.
These are the opening words of the "Exchange and Returns Policy" document. I've never encountered a company that failed to guarantee my complete satisfaction. What's important is the policy itself. In Dot Corp's case, it's a little alarming. The return window is 7 days from delivery, and that includes a 15% restocking fee unless it is unopened. Furthermore:
All original shipping and product packaging, protective materials, tags, and accessories must be in place as-was. Dot Incorporation will not accept any returns if the product shows signs of wear, or has been used or altered from its original condition in any way, or if the 7-day return authorization period has passed
No one should really expect a start-up to have return policies similar to a massive retail chain that's capable of easily absorbing the cost of returned merchandise, certainly. Seven days, however, is barely enough time to get technical support or quite figure out if one wants the watch. It's in effect a one-way purchase. That's one reason I'm writing this review.
The glitches might be a non-starter for some purchasers, though I didn't for a minute really consider returning it for a refund. Customer support has been very responsive, but the fact that they're on Korean Standard Time means I can only call at night. This made me aware of something I'd never thought about before: this is what you Australians and Britains have been dealing with forever in every purchase from small American companies! In fact, they called me the very night I was writing this review in response to my report of issues.
Incidentally, a close read of the manual also yields up this precautionary nugget, which I assume is not to be taken too much to heart:
Do not be in close contact with objects with underlying magnetic chips, such as credit cards, phone cards, bankbooks, and tickets. Information may be damaged due to the device’s magnetic property.
And, how about this one?
Do not place charging terminals close to exposed metal, such as necklaces, keys, coins, nails, watches, etc.
No one can take these warnings seriously in daily use. They represent stock language inserted by lawyers in order to provide grounds for denying damage claims or, potentially, for voiding warranties. Something of the sort is present in pretty much any user manual.
I am convinced that a Braille smart watch can be, for some of us, just as much a basic piece of "blind tech" as the smartphone itself has become. The industry has made at-a-glance notifications into a basic part of using a phone, and Braille is sometimes the best or only viable way for a blind person to have similar functionality. Needless to say, it offers even more of a game-changer for deafblind users. I do not consider the Braille smart watch a direct competitor to the Apple Watch, either; the Apple product delivers unique fitness functions and the convenience of a number of other things "without taking your phone out of your pocket," as the saying goes. Neither of those is very important to me personally. The Braille smartwatch lets me look at my phone lock screen, in essence, not only without taking it out of my pocket, but without making a sound other than the clicking of the refreshable cells. Will a Braille smart watch ever be able to do significantly more or run its own apps? There is another new Braille technology, powered by a room full of Ph.D.s and based on electroactive polymers, that may one day allow for both a graphical Braille watch and even a full-page Braille display (a simple prototype polymer watch is in the funding stage). Without having to look too far ahead, though, here are some things I'd love to see in a future model, whether it's from Dot Incorporated or any company that's watching the Dot Watch before trying something like it themselves:
- Bluetooth 5. The watch utilizes Bluetooth 4.2, which brought battery life improvements that really show in the watch's week-long charge. But version 5, as I understand it, would dramatically enhance the range for a low-traffic device like the watch. Currently, my watch disconnects when I move to the other side of my house from where my phone is, and it's distracting. Increased range would also make "Find my watch" and "Find my phone" more usable (provided the other issues noted above can be dealt with, that is).
- I want an app for that. Although receiving notifications is by far the most important function for a Braille smart watch, I'm already imagining other fun and useful Apple-watch-like functionality that could be implemented, either by Dot Corp or through a software development kit for other developers. For example, retrieving temperatures and weather alerts from a weather data service should be fairly straight-forward, or checking today's calendar items. The Iphone sensors could also be read, including the compass and accelerometer, though I'm not sure if the phone compass can deliver direction of travel reliably when the phone is in a pocket.
- Muting text. I'd like to be able to "mute" particular text strings before they're displayed on watch notifications, or replace one arbitrary string with another. In the example I gave earlier, I could set up a replacement to delete the phrase "motion detected on," for example, so that my security camera alert would read: "Arlo Driveway."
- Pocket watch design. Clearly, keeping the watch face clean and the delicacy of the pins are major issues for this device. The "skins" they devised need replacing every few months, and others have said they can interfere occasionally with the output. I also absolutely don't feel comfortable wearing the unit if it's raining, when washing dishes, doing any kind of outdoor work, etc. For all these reasons, I think the technology is better suited to a pocket watch design, where opening the watch lid would activate the time display. Both the pocket and the lid would offer far greater security for the device while retaining the ability to not have to broadcast my phone alerts or the time. I'd like to see this as an option, at least. Alternatively, put a lid on the wrist watch itself, like a REIZEN Braille watch.
In the app, the watch shows up as "Dot Watch" followed by a number I take to be its serial number. My unit has a number a bit over a thousand, implying that a claim made in 2017 to have taken 140,000 pre-orders was probably overstated, perhaps by several orders of magnitude. Is it because most blind people don't have a need, don't find the price worth the benefits, or are worried about being an early adopter? My experience suggests that we're still in the early adopter stage--the "bleeding edge"--though I didn't know that when I hit the "buy now" button.
I really like using the watch. Despite having to be careful about taking it off for its protection and dealing with its quirks, I have had no symptoms of buyer's remorse. When contemplating any technology purchase, I ask myself how much it is worth to me on a daily basis (and I'm very stingy in this regard). I came up with twenty-five cents a day. That puts the rate of return at a little less than three years, based on the sale price I paid. I hope it lasts that long, and I hope that the device succeeds on the market so that I can purchase a new version in three years. Moreover, I hope to see another company enter this space as well, either as a competitor or, if Dot doesn't take off, as a buy-out by a larger, more stable company. ...one with a generous return policy, American-based support, and an assurance of long-term app support.