What if I told you that you could have a tiny device you can use to control the music, audio books, or podcasts on your iPhone or iPad? Nice, right? No fumbling with on-screen buttons, no limited AirPod controls, no missing the rewind function on your Aftershokz headset. But what if I then told you that this same device can be a remote control for VoiceOver itself? That, without having to touch your screen, you can open and navigate apps, double tap, change the volume, even take a picture? Well, a new product says it can do all of this. It's called the O6, made by Fingertips Labs, and I've been using it for the last few weeks. I'm here to tell you what it is, what it isn't, and if you might benefit from getting your very own. Once you’re done with this review, or maybe even before you keep reading here, have a look at the O6 manual.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will say this up front. I was contacted by the makers of the O6, specifically a co-founder of Fingertips Labs named P.K. I was provided a free unit with one accessory (a belt clip) to test. This is a $118 USD value. However, the company stressed to me that they want honest feedback, not a promotional article. Though I was given a free review unit, I can assure you that this did not influence my evaluation in any way.
Exactly What Is It?
The O6 is a small, round device with just three controls on it. It is meant to offer basic media control or, in a different mode, basic VoiceOver gesture replacement. It connects via bluetooth, and is therefore easily kept in a pocket, on a table, clipped to a belt, or otherwise moved around. More than that, though, the O6 companion app is designed to give you easy, remote access to popular services. With the app and an O6 unit in hand, you can check email, Twitter, articles saved to Pocket, and other feeds without touching your iPhone or iPad. Keep reading, and this will make more sense.
Physically, the O6 is a round dial set on a non-moving, thin base the same diameter as the dial. Put another way, think of two small disks stacked atop one another; the top disk can rotate freely while the bottom disk stays fixed. In the center of the rotating dial is a button, and the whole dial can also be pressed in to act as a second button. Two buttons and a dial are the only controls the O6 offers. The vertical edges of the dial are ridged for easy grip, while the top face of the O6 is almost entirely covered in soft, grippy rubber. A rubber ring tactually separates the center button from the dial around it. The center button is also textured differently than the rubber on the face of the dial.
The bottom of the O6 is, as I said, fixed. It houses the guts of the unit—bluetooth, processor, battery, and so on. On the face opposite the dial are small ridges used for mounting. The O6 is meant to be used on its own, or connected to one of two accessories, with more to come in the future. For instance, you can quickly put the unit into a belt clip attachment, then clip anywhere you like for easy access. The way this mounting surface is designed is clever, making it obvious how to make the connection and nearly impossible to connect the O6 incorrectly.
For those interested, the colors are understated and simple. There’s no high contrast here, but there doesn’t really need to be. The sides and a ring around the edge of the dial are silver, the dial itself is dark gray, and the center button is light gray. The back (where the O6 connects to attachments) is the same gray as the center button.
The O6 is small, but is very well made. It is constructed of aluminum, with pleasant-feeling rubber on top and precise ridging on the sides of the dial. It is also impressively small, considering the technology and long-lasting battery packed into it. Even the charging puck is high-quality, with a solid feel and rubber on the bottom to hold it in place. Like the O6, the puck is quite small.
Yes, I made an entire section just for the product packaging. I know it’s an odd thing to do, but it should tell you just how impressed I was with how this device arrived that I devoted this much space to the topic. In short, anyone who receives one of these devices is going to enjoy unpacking it. Here’s why.
The O6 comes in a sturdy box, which is no surprise. What did surprise me, though, is that this box has a top flap you can open and close. When open, you have access to what’s in the box, of course. When closed, though, the flap is held in place by a magnet, making it solid when closed but also very easy to open. The O6, its charging puck, its print manual, and other bits are all snugged in the box in layers. Each layer is easily accessed thanks to the small flap placed on the paper or plastic that holds the layer in place. This tab is located on the same side as the magnet, opposite the hinge of the main flap. You need only pull the tab to free what’s inside and reveal the next layer.
It’s a bit hard to describe the setup to someone who hasn’t seen or felt it before. Suffice it to say that, if you get an O6, unpacking it will be a breeze. Not even Apple’s packaging is this easy to get into while still being secure and well made. This is no accident, either; when I commented on this to a co-founder of Fingertips Labs, I was told that packaging was an area on which the company had spent a lot of time and effort. That definitely shows. It also contributes to the overall impression of quality I get from the O6.
One note on mounting accessories: my belt clip arrived in the same mailing box as the O6 box. The clip is not packaged in anything like the same way, instead coming sealed in a regular cardboard and plastic container meant to hang on a store shelf. When I pointed out the huge disparity between this and the superb packaging of the main unit. I was told that the company had to package the accessories in this way due to requirements from physical stores, for security reasons. That’s fair enough, but it was jarring to find a $19 accessory enclosed in such a basic package after I’d just experienced possibly the best packaging job in my life.
How It Works
The O6 connects to your iOS device as a keyboard, despite its lack of keys. As you use it, it simulates keys to control media playback or VoiceOver. Pressing the center button, for example, can be play/pause or simulate a double tap with VoiceOver enabled.
The O6 can work in one of three modes: basic, to control playback; advanced, to simulate some VoiceOver gestures; and super, to give you a different set of VO commands. Unfortunately, while getting from advanced to super mode and back is easy, getting into or out of basic mode is not. The O6 app must be open or have been opened recently, and you must toggle VoiceOver off. The company tells me they are working on a fix for this, so that VoiceOver users can access basic mode commands without leaving advanced mode.
In any mode, though, combinations of pressing and rotating are all you need. For instance, you can press the dial in once to move to the next rotor setting, or press the center button twice to perform a magic tap, or rotate the dial while pressing it in to control volume. Fingertip Labs is always coming up with improvements to the commands available, but the basic idea remains the same: pressing a set number of times, holding a button in for long enough, and rotating the dial after some kind of button press or with no press at all are the ways The O6 works. There is a surprising number of options when you put three controls, one to three presses, holds, and press and hold actions together. The challenge is remembering them all, since each mode has its own set of commands. I’ll say this, though: if you plan to use the O6 one-handed, get a belt clip. It makes life a lot easier.
Origin of the Idea
It may seem odd, at first, to propose a small, round device with just three controls as an alternative to touching your screen. Why three controls? What’s the point? I talked to P.K. (co-founder of Fingertips Labs) about this, and he told me the whole story.
P.K. grew up in India, and watched blind students struggle with the use of iOS devices. Apple products are very accessible, and are thus highly desirable in India as they are in most countries. The problem is that they are also very expensive—much more so than in the United States—and are therefore even more precious. If one breaks, it’s not at all easy to repair or replace it. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if, at least at the time P.K. was there, India’s schools lacked available teachers for visually impaired students. There wasn’t much in the way of explanations for VoiceOver gestures, iOS concepts, and other keys to successfully using these products. Couple fragile, expensive devices with lack of instruction and you have potential problems.
When P.K. moved to America, he went to work for General Motors. Much of what he did involved product design and testing, and he noticed a common problem: distracted driving. No matter what, people were looking at texts, checking Twitter, and otherwise using their phones when they shouldn’t have been.
In 2012, P.K. had an idea that could, he hoped, address both of these problems. Along with a friend who stepped away from the medical devices company he’d founded, P.K. began designing and researching. After countless prototypes, tests, hours of research, and dollars, the O6 was ready. It offers an easier, more intuitive approach to VoiceOver control for students, and it can, when combined with its iOS app, give drivers the information they want to look at in audio form. There’s even a steering wheel mount so drivers can puttee O6 in easy reach and operate it with one hand while behind the wheel.
During my review time, I did not have access to the new firmware being developed. I had to open the O6 app and turn VoiceOver off just to get to control my music or other audio, and I had to switch modes with a long press of the center button simply to double tap something I’d moved to with the rotor. This meant that I found myself not using the O6 much, simply because it was such a pain to get it to do what I wanted compared to just touching the screen.
That said, I did find it helpful in some areas, and I can definitely see this being useful for VoiceOver users once the commands are updated. For instance, I found it a nice change to leave my phone on my desk, lean back, and simply click a dial to move through tweets or emails. The mechanics are different, and more comfortable. Rather than my hand hovering over the screen, my finger making the same motion over and over, I can rotate the dial on my O6. This can be done with one hand if the O6 is in the belt clip, but I found it harder to do one-handed with no clip attached. I read saved articles at night, while my phone charges. Rather than reaching awkwardly to my bedside table to issue commands, I could control the phone with the O6 while lying comfortably. I am eagerly awaiting the firmware update that will add more and easier VoiceOver control, and will update this review once I have a chance to play with that update. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think I will find plenty of uses for the O6 so long as the commands get sorted out by Fingertips Labs.
Using the App
One of the main selling points of the O6 is its companion app. With it, you can scroll through emails, tweets, Pocket articles, iOS notifications, and other information sources using just the O6. It is important to note that this functionality is aimed more at sighted people, particularly drivers, than it is at VoiceOver users. The thinking behind this is that VO already has speech output, and is much more powerful than a single app could be, so visually impaired users will be much more likely to use VO than the O6 app. Still, I tried the app to see how it worked. At this stage, I don’t recommend doing so.
First, just to get the O6 to control the information channels in the app, you must open said app and then, bafflingly, turn off VoiceOver. There's no other way to get the O6 into the media control mode (where it can also control your music or podcasts) required to browse channels. You don't need VoiceOver when using the O6 in this way, of course, but it's still more trouble than just opening your Mail or Twitter app of choice to begin with.
The next problem is that you can't lock your device while using the app, or everything stops working. I can't figure out why this happens either, since the app is being controlled by O6's media mode. This can work on music or other audio even with the iOS device locked, so that it can't do the same for the O6 app is something I can't understand. Please note that Fingertips Labs told me using the app with my device locked is supported, and they’re as confused as I am about why I couldn’t get this to behave as expected. Your milage may vary, and you’ll probably have better luck than I did.
Third, there are some problems specific to Twitter usage within the app. There's no marker service support, meaning you always begin from the top of your timeline and proceed to older tweets. Tweet Marker or another service would be good to see here. Next, quoted tweets aren't supported at all. Instead of the entire thing, you hear only the quoter's comment. Third, I haven't yet figured out how to act on tweets. Since there's no read later support, I'd like to at least "like" tweets so I can return to them later in another app. I'd also like to retweet them. However, I haven't found a way to bring up any kind of options menu. By the way, this also affects iOS notifications, as you can't dismiss them using the O6.
Finally, the app struggles if your internet connection is poor. Instead of telling you that it's loading content or offering some other kind of progress update, it makes a sound to tell you that it entered the channel you selected, then says nothing at all, as though the channel were empty.
All these problems overshadow any advantage that this app might provide, and I found myself using it quite rarely. Of course, the company can easily update the app in the future, and I imagine they will do so frequently. Plus, as I said, this app is really more for sighted users not used to operating a phone without looking at it. VO users will find little benefit here, and will probably want to use the O6 to control VoiceOver or media directly. You still need the app to update your O6’s firmware, contact the company, and so on, but using it to browse information sources isn’t likely to have much point for those who already rely on VO.
The question is: should you spend the money to get your own O6? At the time of this writing, I’d hesitate to give a hole-hearted yes. However, that will very likely change as Fingertips Labs improves the firmware. The idea of having a tiny device that lets you give VoiceOver commands without having to touch the screen is good for most anyone. The open SDK that lets apps take advantage of O6 is also great to have—imagine a GPS app offering a wide array of commands without you having to pull out your phone at all. But is it worth $99? I don’t know. Having one, I’m finding it somewhat useful today, and expect to find it a great deal more so as the firmware improves. But would I have purchased it for myself? Not as it stands right now, no. Would I have with the promised improvements? Possibly, though I can’t make that determination without using said improved software.
That’s why I gave this three stars. It gets top marks for construction, packaging quality, ease of charging/mounting, and overall feel. But I just can’t use it enough, as the software stands today, to make it a worthwhile purchase. The good news is that software can be updated, so the parts of the O6 that are lacking can be fixed. The parts that can’t be changed—quality of construction, feel, etc—are already great.
The concept behind the O6 is a good one, and if nothing else, I hope it helps drivers be safer on the road. It could also be useful to those with motor problems that make taps and swipes difficult. For the average VoiceOver user, this seems like a bit of a niche product for the moment. When and if apps adopt the SDK, and as more and more changes are made to how the O6 works, that determination will likely change, moving toward a more and more useful accessory. My final decision would be to hold off for the moment, but check back in every few months to see where things stand. You may soon find yourself reading about a new set of features that makes the O6 a good fit for you. When I talked to P.K., he listed a number of improvements his company plans to make within the year: a new O6 that will do what the current one does but feel different, dedicated HomeKit control, using multiple O6 devices at once, huge improvements to VoiceOver commands (that’s coming in weeks, not months), and more.
I’m excited to see where the O6 goes, and will keep this review as updated as I can to make sure you have good information as you consider whether to invest in one. If you have questions, you can leave a comment below, but you’ll probably have more luck getting a solid answer if you contact the company directly.