Wearable Braille - My week with the Dot Watch

Review Category

Rating

3 Stars

Review

This review of the Dot Watch provides an additional point of view to the 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 a 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 quartz Braille watches, though, plus a mechanical Braille pocketwatch that I really liked—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 meager power, particularly when much of the text 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 it, 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. To navigate the list, treat it like a table with five columns and 10 rows: move across columns with the pan-left and pan-right touch sensors, described below, and turn the crown to move up and down within a column. 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. Perhaps more than anything else, 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.

Another feature to note is the ability to access 10 “memos” of up to 240 characters each on the watch. The user enters the text in the Dot Watch app. 240 characters is adequate for a short grocery list, for example, but one could only pan right through the list. For scrolling through the list by groups of items, all the memos would need to be used, at which point one could scroll through them using the crown. I can also see storing a friend’s gate code, a troublesome password, or a destination address. Even with access to an embosser, having these kinds of info on the wrist is far more convenient.

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—although, to be completely honest, that scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility for me! More usefully, double-pressing both home and select simultaneously sets off a chime sound on the phone, much like a Tile or similar product. When I first purchased the watch, this feature did not work properly, but it seems to have been fixed in the latest app update. Naturally, the Dot Watch app needs to be running on the phone in the background. The last feature is a timer, which is rather useful for timing my French Press coffee in the morning. The watch remembers the last start time used.

Physical Description and Braille Cells

Ok, so what does it look like, already? 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. The fit and finish are quite good, but I can’t imagine anyone using the word “stylish” anywhere near this device. On the vertical side that will be pointing toward your fingers, just where the stem on an mechanical 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 (so, come to think of it, it isn’t a home button at all). 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 touch sensors for pan back and pan forward occupy the bottom third. These deliver no tactile feedback, but are simply pressure-sensitive areas. As such, there’s some risk of inadvertently brushing the sensors, 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 something under $2 per month to the cost of ownership, depending on how much action your device sees.

The watch band is a strap of thin metal material with a magnetic 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.

Finally, 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. A heavier, nicer charging cradle would be a plus.

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 is actually useful in knowing when it’s safe to read the display again. I assume that the underlying actuator technology is the same as found in the Orbit 20 refreshable display, but that the wearable design poses additional challenges to pin reliability. After a short learning curve, problems with reading the display become infrequent, 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.

Glitches

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 realign 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 apparent way to progress to the next step. What I finally determined was that, at the bottom of the language list, two buttons, not coded as buttons, allow the user to proceed or cancel, but the labels of these buttons are in Korean. For the record, “proceed” (or whatever it really says) is the last item. I’m sure this will be fixed soon. I’m prompted to wonder how much testing they do with Voiceover, however. The first version of the app I used had several other glitches as well. For example, the sliders on the Output settings screen that control scrolling speed, vibration intensity, and sleep timeout were not accessible. Coincidentally or not, all the fixes I’m noting in this review were implemented a week or two after I pointed Dot customer support to an earlier version of this review, which may have alerted them to some of the issues or helped them prioritize fixes.

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. There are always problems in BT-ville, are there not? Dot, Inc. says they’re aware of this instability.

As you can read in the comments below, there’s also a significant hardware or firmware bug involving the touch sensors. The pan-right touch sensor occasionally starts activating randomly, even when I am not touching the watch. I turn the crown to the “Noti” item and press select, only to have the watch begin scrolling right through its list of notifications without my touching anything: 1…11…21…31…41, and then the watch begins vibrating at random intervals to let me know that, try as I might, I will not get it to scroll any further through the list. Similarly, when activating one of the notifications to begin reading it, it scrolls through the entire message spasmodically, then starts pulsing at random intervals. The touch sensor is “stuck.” This also prevents the display from going to sleep until I hit the home button. I knew there was a reason I hated touch sensors. Sometimes, I can wait it out and it will regain its sanity. Sometimes restarting the watch clears the issue. This brings us to the next topic.

Customer Support

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 Incorporated’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 really consider returning it for a refund. Customer support has been 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! All my emails have been answered by the same individual within 24 hours.

I reported the touch sensor issue noted above as, presumably, a hardware defect in my unit. They called me and, after I explained the issue again, including my concern that a technician would have difficulty reproducing it because it was intermittant, I was offered an exchange. But when they received the watch, they said there was nothing wrong with it and said they were going to ship it back, and that I should read the manual. I made a third attempt to describe the hardware issue. A week later, when I inquired about status, they said they were investigating more thoroughly and offered a full refund, owing to my dissatisfaction with the app glitches. They contend that they haven’t encountered the problem on any other unit and couldn’t reproduce it on mine. I believe a moderate language barrier was a significant factor in my dealings with Dot. Although I accepted their offer of a refund, I repurchased another one in hopes that the touch sensor issue was a one-off. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

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 find those particular admonitions somewhat ironic, though, for a watch.

The Future

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 health 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, in essence, look at my phone lock screen, 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:

  1. Bluetooth 5. The watch utilizes Bluetooth 4.2 low energy, which really shows 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).
  2. memo from clipboard. If I need to send a phone number or other text to the watch, it’s often something I can copy to the clipboard in another app. I’d love a function to send the clipboard directly to the next empty memo slot on the phone. I’d love it even more if this were a gesture on the watch itself, rather than needing to be initiated in the Dot Watch app.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

Conclusion

In the app, the watch showed up as “Dot Watch” followed by a number I took to be its serial number. My unit had 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 think about all the times I have to bring the phone speaker right up to my ear and struggle with a recalcitrant lock screen in order to simply check the time or read an incoming text while I’m in a restaurant, in a car on the highway, or at intermission during a play, or my efforts to swipe through a grocery list on my phone in a noisy grocery store (I generally just print it out and hand it to my helper). The Dot Watch is the only option in these situations, other than a bluetooth headset, and the Iphone lock screen of late poses its own frustrations that are circumvented by the watch.

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 less than three years, based on the sale price I paid. That’s reasonable for a device with a non-user-replaceable battery. The typical use case I can forsee,given all the things I’ve noted here, would be to put it on and connect it for certain days at work, when I go to a restaurant, or for shopping in noisy environments—not to wear it every day. That should allow the skins to last quite a bit longer than 3 months. I hope to see the product succeed and evolve. 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.

Devices Accessory Was Used With

iPhone

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Comments

Submitted by peter on Sunday, December 15, 2019

I have also observed this behavior on the Dot Watch. I don't know if it is related to the touch sensors or not, but I have generally resolved this issue by powering off the watch and then powering it on again.

As your review indicates, there are a few quirks with the watch that should be able to be fixed with a firmware and/or app update.

In summary, however, I agree, it is very nice and quick to tell the time quietly, unobtrusively, and digitally!

I am looking forward to this technology and its implmentation to continue to improve and become more robust.

--Pete

Submitted by Voracious P. Brain on Monday, December 16, 2019

Thanks for the comment. That's the great thing about AppleVis. They swear it's "just me" and that they can't reproduce it. I think you should report it to them so that they start to take it seriously.
They play with their pricing, I've noticed: it was $349 at launch, then when I looked it was $369 with 30% off, and today it's $399 with 50% off. At $199, shipped, I can put up with quirks.

Submitted by peter on Monday, December 16, 2019

Yes, I have reported it. The support team has been very responsive thus far on other topics, but I haven't seen any feedback on this particular issue with erratic and automatic scrolling.

As you indicated in your very well written post, it does take some time to get used to this watch. I was a bit put off at first but now am really enjoying it.

--Pete

Submitted by Voracious P. Brain on Tuesday, December 17, 2019

So, my second Watch arrived today. The hardware scrolling issue was unstoppable, right out of the gate. But, indeed, turning the device off and back on temporarily tames it. It may be a bunch of signals, either from a hardware glitch or brushing against the sensor itself, all getting buffered and then playing themselves out. Like, a *bunch* of them.
I'm happy to report that the controls to set vibration intensity and sleep time are now accessible, as of the last app update.
The problem with the language screen I noted above, I now know is because the "proceed" and "cancel" buttons (a) don't appear as buttons and (b) are in Korean. So, they look just like part of the list of languages. be advised that "proceed" (or whatever it really says) is the very last thing on the screen. Same goes for updating the firmware, which will simply say "firmware update" on the language selection screen.
The second unit I received has a serial number several hundred *lower* than the first unit, so these things are piled in a warehouse somewhere.
Meanwhile, the new watch has a defective left touch sensor. It doesn't activate 95% of the time. But I don't think I can bring myself to deal with those people again in order to try to repair or exchange it.