The following review is an adapted version of this evaluation to suit the AppleVis website. You can read the full review on the Technology, Research and Innovation Center's web page. This expanded evaluation includes a comprehensive review of the internal applications and how well the Active Braille works with other screen readers not within the Apple ecosystem.
There are a large number of braille displays on the market which vary in functions and price points. It is my experience that consumers often choose devices based on one specific feature that they find most suitable to their situation. Positioning and type of keyboard, feel of the braille cells, positioning of scrolling keys, availability of direct download book services and/or other online capabilities, price and many other factors may go into the braille user’s choice of display. Another line of products presents itself with the unique ability to sense when the braille reader is at the end of the line of text which will then trigger the braille display to pan forward. This feature is known as Automatic Tactile Control and is available on several devices being produced by a company called HelpTech. Along with Active Tactile Control, these devices also present with some unique abilities concerning audio. This review concerns the 40-cell model known as the Active Braille 40.
What’s in the Box?
The package should contain the Active Braille already inserted into its case, a shoulder strap, a thumb drive, power brick and USB-c cable, 64 GB Micro SD card (already in the Active Braille) and a Quick Reference guide to using the thumb drive in braille. It’s always nice to find companies who include some form of getting started guide in paper braille.
The Active Braille is a 40-cell braille display which sports 64 GB of Micro SD memory, a file manager, editor, mp3 player, clock, calculator, scheduler, games, support for braille music and a long lasting battery. The Active Braille measures approximately 12.6 inches long, 4.1 inches wide, 0.8 inches deep, and weighs 1.85 pounds. It’s shaped like a rectangle, with a tapered edge at the front. Placing the device in front of you, with its downward-sloping edge nearest you, the user will find a speaker on the front left side and a second speaker on the right front side. Starting with the keys closest to you, from left to right, you have the first of 3 rectangular-shaped spacebars, a joystick and the second spacebar. Behind this, you will find a depression that contains 40 cells of braille with triple-action keys at each end. Either of these buttons can be pressed away from you, toward you or straight down. Behind the 40 cells of braille, and level with the upper part of the triple-action keys, are 40 cursor routing buttons which are raised slightly higher than the recessed area containing the cells. Behind the cursor routing buttons, and on an elevated surface, is the Perkins-style keyboard. Between Dots 1 and 4, you will find a third spacebar with an internal microphone located behind the spacebar. On the back of the Active Braille, along the far left corner, you will find another USB-A port for connecting an external keyboard along with a slot which contains the already inserted Micro SD card. Though I consider myself to have decent tactual acuity, I was not able to find this slot easily. It would have been of help if there was some tactual way of identifying where the slot is. It is small, like a Micro SD card, so it is important to be careful when removing or inserting it into the Active Braille. On the left side of the Active Braille, from front to back are a 3.5 mm headphone jack and a USB- C port used for charging, connecting to USB equipped external devices and sending and receiving data. Along the right side, closest to you is the round Power button followed by a second Type A USB port for plugging in external keyboards. On the bottom of the Active Braille, you will find 2 sets of screws which secure the 2 replaceable batteries.
The included case is made of nylon and has a magnetic closure. It would have been a nice feature if Help Tech would have added a zipper pocket to the case for storing things like the included thumb drive. That said, it is well designed and opens to provide access to all ports and controls for easy operation.
The first thing I typically do when working with a braille device is configure it according to my preferences. This is achieved on the Active Braille through the Options menu. From the Main Menu, press o. The options that can be configured include: Using 6 dot braille; how the device reacts when using first letter navigation; whether to highlight hotkeys; whether to show system files; whether to show or hide folders; whether they are displayed prior to the list of files or not; quick entry; whether to show attributes; whether connecting an external keyboard will automatically switch to that keyboard; configuring automatic shut off; the mode that the Active Braille will start in; when and if to play sounds for a specific event; configuring the time format; whether to show an input indicator; the firmness of the dots; the sensitivity level of the automatic tactile control (auto scroll); when the device will go on standby; changing the language; toggling mass storage mode; controlling whether the USB-C cable plugged In will also charge the Active Braille; low energy braille; and the option to recalibrate the battery and restore settings to their factory default. For more information about any of the listed possibilities, consult the accessible PDF version of the manual for further information. The manual is also available on the included Start Stick.
By default, the Files application is the first item in the Main Menu. Upon launch, there will be a few options located above the list of files and folders found on the Micro SD Card. These include the ability to create a new file, previous file and new directory (folder). The Files application allows you to perform the standard expected actions of a file management utility. It is possible to open, edit, read, rename, copy, move or delete files. There are also options to select multiple files or folders to edit at the same time. It is also possible to create folders within the folder you are currently using and to create new files. One of the other things a user may notice is the symbol 1-4-5-6 at the end of each line. This is the computer braille equivalent of a question mark. When encountering this symbol, if the user presses the Cursor Routing Button above the question mark, they will be taken to the relevant section in the manual.
Moving Data to and From the Active Braille
Though the Active braille has 3 ways of moving data, one that is not included is support for thumb drives. The user can move files to and from the Active braille by installing the HTCom software for Windows, using File Explorer/Finder or by sending data from one device to another. Transfer speeds are quite slow using the HTCom application, File Explorer or Finder. I was seeing transfer rates of around 30 KBPS when copying files from a PC to the Active Braille. To put this in a less technical way, a typical 400 page novel in BRF file (roughly 750KB in size) takes approximately 25 seconds to transfer. I transferred an encyclopedia in BRF format to the Active Braille, and since it is over 3,200 KB, it took around 2 minutes to move. If this were a text file, it would have taken even longer to convert the file and then send it. If the user has, for example, a 2 hour long mp3 file of at least somewhat decent quality, it would be larger than 100 MB. That would take a very long time to move or copy such a file to the Active Braille.
If you feel confident in handling the Micro SD card and have a way to use it on another device, moving data directly to the card is the fastest way to accomplish file transfers. However, since locating the slot which holds the memory card may be difficult and because the Micro SD card is so easy to lose, many may not wish to do this. As the Micro SD Card contains essential system files, it should be handled with care.
The advantage to installing the HTCom software is that it has the ability to translate files from text formats to contracted braille which may be important since the Active Braille does not contain on board translation. Alternatively, one can also download a utility for Windows called Send To Braille. Mac users will need to find an application or service to accomplish this task such as Robobraille, since HTCom is only available for Windows. If you prefer software to online services, you can also convert text and other formats into braille on the Mac or Windows using an application called Braille Blaster. In both cases, be ready to provide an email address. For APH, it is required to download the program, and for Robobraille, your email address is needed to send you the converted file. In all cases, the resources listed are free.
Automatic Tactile Control (ATC)
Automatic Tactile Control while reading is a pleasure. After adjusting the sensitivity in the Options menu, I found that it kept up with my reading very reliably and I was able to read naturally. When testing the ATC on an older model of HelpTech’s braille displays, I had previously found that I had to read with a much more firm touch than I was used to. I’m happy to report that this is not the case with the 2021 version of the Active Braille. For individuals with issues related to repetitive movement, this feature can be a game changer. Though many displays and screen readers support a version of auto-scroll which moves forward based on a set amount of time, ATC tracks your position and refreshes when it senses you have reached the end of the line. From an ergonomic perspective, the curved cell design allows a reader’s hands to maintain a natural curved position, rather than stretching or extending the fingers required with traditional flat cells. This natural hand position may support reduce hand fatigue when reading for long durations.
Connecting to other devices for audio
Unlike other braille displays on the market, the Active braille can not only serve as a braille display, but can also act as an audio device. When pairing this way, one must initiate a different pairing to the device than as a braille display. Instructions from the manual worked as advertised, though Each time I turned the Active Braille off or went out of range of my phone, I had to re-pair the audio connection even though the phone hadn’t forgotten the Active Braille. The audio would often become choppy until I forgot the Active Braille on my phone and re-paired it. I found this to be the case under iOS 16.3.1. The advantages to pairing the Active Braille with an iPhone or Android device is that since the Active Braille has a headphone jack, this can enable the user to again have a 3.5 MM option on devices which no longer have this audio port. The lag that has traditionally been the cause of complaints from screen reader users appears to be almost entirely gone. I found that using external speakers or headphones made the audio much clearer than through the internal speakers. I found that audio is not cut off when there is a pause and audio resumes playing. For those using hearing aids where Bluetooth doesn’t always catch the first syllable or 2 when the connection picks back up, I’m happy to report that this is not an issue on the Active Braille. I also found making Face Time calls was clear and that the other person could understand me without difficulty when using the Active Braille’s microphone. It is also possible to use the Active Braille as a music player only. This is also something which sounds quite good when connected to external speakers or headphones. I found that the Bluetooth connection between various devices did not degrade when an audio connection was also established on the same device.
Connecting the Active Braille as a Braille Display
Before covering specifics, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some settings and limitations about the Active Braille. First, PC Mode is the generic term for any type of connection with a screen reader the user will use to manage various connections. There are keyboard shortcuts for jumping from device to device unlike the Brailliant and Mantis, which can be a major productivity booster for those utilizing more than one device at a time.
When connected using PC Mode, even if you are on a Mac or other device that isn’t a PC, the spacebar located between dots 1 and 4 does not function as a spacebar, but rather, a Control key. This could be good for some, but if you wish to use the spacebar located near the rest of the keyboard as a spacebar, you are out of luck. It would be helpful if there was a setting to define the Control key on whatever you are connected to instead of only having one option.
For those connecting to an Apple device, there is a setting in the Options menu which is turned on by default called “iPhone Mode” which must be enabled for the Apple device to recognize the Active Braille as a braille display. However, if you would like to also connect to your PC or Android device via Bluetooth, you must turn “iPhone mode” off, which also deletes any already established pairings. If you are a user who wishes to connect the Active Braille to a PC and iPhone, for example, it may be best to use the PC’s USB connection instead of Bluetooth. This is the only way to utilize the 2 with the Active Braille without having to repair these devices as needed. Note that though USB support is available as of TalkBack 13.1, it does not appear that the Active Braille currently supports this. I also found during testing that I had to turn the Active Braille off and on to put it in discoverable mode. After that, by leaving the Active Braille in the Main menu, I was able to successfully confirm most pairing requests, which are required over Bluetooth. However, this initial connection should not be made while the Active Braille is in PC Mode. Though the manual documents this, it was still something I tried to do out of habit. It was also my experience that if other braille devices are paired with either Android or the iOS device that the connection was established less reliably. Automatic Tactile Control is available for connecting with external screen readers. When enabled, I found that it worked reliably and was usually good at determining when I was at the end of a line.
Connecting to iOS Devices
As mentioned above, it is necessary to enable iPhone Mode on the Active Braille before pairing it with an iOS device or Mac computer. With iOS 16.3.1, the connection was extremely solid. Interestingly, the spacebar between dots 1 and 4 did not function as a Control Key, but didn’t register at all under 2 different iOS Devices. Transferring data from the clipboard on the Active Braille to iOS was mostly reliable, though the cursor would sometimes jump around making the transfer a jumbled mess. The longer the text to be transferred, the less reliable it became. Even when typing rapidly on iOS, I found that the Active Braille was able to keep up with my typing speed. The only other challenge I had was remembering that I must add a dot 7 to the command Space with M to mute speech. This is because Space with m toggles PC Mode on the Active Braille. The manual says that you have to press and hold this command, but I found that it always moved me out of PC Mode when pressed. Unlike the various devices running the newer Humanware firmware for the NLS e-Reader, Brailliant and Chameleon, pressing dot 8 always works correctly. Commands such as select all, copy, paste and so forth also function as expected. At the moment, the Active Braille does not appear to support connecting to iOS over USB-C when using the USB 3 to Lightning Camera Adapter.
Mac OS Ventura
As long as iPhone Mode is enabled, the Mac is able to pair with the Active Braille as expected. Other than the same limitation with space and m found on other devices, I noticed no major variation between how the Active Braille and other braille devices function with VoiceOver. The good news about space with m on the Macthe, keyboard command can be remapped to another combination using VoiceOver. Like with iOS, I was not able to get the spacebar between dots 1 and 4 to function as a Control key.
Connecting To Android 13, NDVA 2022.4 or JAWS 2023
For this information, along with a detailed review of the internal applications, on the Active Braille, please consult my detailed review.
The Active Braille 2021 is a great choice for anyone who desires the functionality of Automatic Tactile Control. When choosing any product, it is important to prioritize your most important feature (s). While the Active Braille lacks certain features such as on board translation, direct handling of file formats other than plain text and digital braille and certain Bluetooth limitations described above, it offers Active Tactile Control which may be more important to a user who wishes to read continuously and not have to press a button each time they move forward through text. For some, this could be considered a luxury, but for certain individuals with challenges related to repetitive movement, the Active Braille may be the best choice. With some refinement of software and better implementation of features, the Active Braille can be even more appealing to a wider base of users. With a price tag of $6495, this is also a significant consideration. Though as far as I am aware, HelpTech is the only braille display manufacturer offering a 3 year warranty. It’s my hope that HelpTech will work to address some of the concerns outlined herein, and that updates will make it an even more solid product for blind and DeafBlind users.