So Many Braille Displays, Which One is Right for My Student: Part 1

NOTE: Please see other posts in this series including

So Many Braille Displays Part Two (focusing on the Brailliant BI 14 model and touching on the Braille Trail Reader LE)

So Many Braille Displays Part Three (focusing on the Braille Edge)

So Many Braille Displays Part Four (focusing on the Smart Beetle)

So Many Braille Displays Part Five (focusing on the Braille Trail Reader LE)

In my experience, many TVIs, especially those who are sighted, have difficulty comparing braille displays. Why use them, what’s the difference, what are all those buttons for and what do I do if it is hooked up to a computer with a screen reader?

This series will endeavor to answer those questions.

The first display we will look at is the Brailliant BI series from Humanware  

What is the Brailliant Series?

The first incarnation of this device was a 32 cell display. This model was replaced with the current 40 cell model and most recently Humanware added a 14 cell model to the line. The display is also available in an 80 cell model, but there is no way to enter text on that display.  As an FYI, the BI 14 will be covered in a separate post given that it includes features not present on the BI 40 and BI 80 models.

Layout

On the front-facing side of the device are four keys. From left to right:

  • Left Outer Thumb Key or Up Arrow: Navigates one line up from your current cursor location
  • Left Inner Thumb Key or Left Arrow Navigates by one display length or “pans” braille to the next 40 cells you are reading.
  • Right Inner Thumb Key or Right Arrow
  • Right Outer Thumb Key or Down Arrow 

image of BI 40 with the four thumb keys labeled.

On the right side of the Brailliant near the middle of the panel is the power button. Towards the back of the display is the port that is used to connect the display to a computer. Your device can also be charged via this port but it is slower to charge using this method and therefore will not significantly drain the battery of your laptop.  

The keys you will use for braille input are on the top facing side of the display. Working from the device’s back edge and working towards you, the following buttons are present:

  • The Standard Eight Key Entry Mode which includes the Perkins style keyboard found on a standard brailler with a spacebar and dots one through six is present. In addition to the standard six entry keys, Dots Seven and Dot Eight are present.  
  • Dot Seven is located to the left of Dot Three and functions as a backspace key.
  • Dot Eight is located to the right of the Dot Six key and functions as an enter key or adds a new line to a document.
  • Below the Perkins Keyboard area is a 40 or 80 cell braille display. Directly above each cell on the refreshable display is a small button called a Cursor Routing Key. This places the cursor directly on that cell to allow the user to more easily edit their text.
  • On either side of the braille display are a total of six additional keys. To the right and left of the braille display are three buttons arranged vertically. On the left, the button on the top is C1, the middle button is C2, and the third is C3. To the right of the braille display are a similar set of keys. The button at the top is C3, the button in the middle is C5, and the last button on the bottom of that column is C6.
  • At the bottom of the top panel (the portion closest to you) are two keys. Both of these keys function as a space bar and are used interchangeably.  

Use of Command Keys

Those of us who are “old school” know and remember the concept of “chording”, which was pressing the space bar in conjunction with a specific key combination to perform a given action.  

Now, many displays have begun using additional keys on the units to either emulate specific commands or to assign them to a given key on the qwerty keyboard.

The Brailliant BI 40 and BI 80 models have the six command keys as shown. 

Image of BI 40 with the 6 Command keys labeled (small round buttons in a vertical layout, three buttons to the left of the Braille Cells and three buttons to to the right) .

The keys’ functions vary depending on the type of device your unit is paired with.  

For example, when paired with an iPhone, using C1, C2, and C5 (which corresponds to a braille letter H if typed on the Perkins keyboard) is like pressing the home button or going to the home screen.  

A further example is that when paired with a PC running JAWS, use of the C3 and C4 keys (which correspond to the ST sign in braille) activates the “start menu” button.  

Specific information on devices that can be paired with the display and the functions of each are in the resource section below.  

Adjusting Settings on the Brailliant

The Brailliant BI 40 and BI 80 displays do not function unless paired with another device running s screen reader. Therefore, you need to adjust settings for the display on the physical display. It is most beneficial, since the Brailliant is not self-voicing, if the individual making adjustments to the settings is able to read braille. If that individual does not read braille, or at least does not know the letters of the alphabet, it is recommended that they call Humanware customer support and get guidance walking through settings. The user guide (see resource section at the bottom) contains simulated braille that may assist the non-braille reader.  

To enter or exit the settings menu, press the power button twice no more than a few seconds apart. Use the Up/Down Arrows (also called the “Outer Thumb Keys”) to navigate among settings. Left/Right Arrows (also referred to as the “Inner Thumb Keys”) toggle or change settings that can be modified. If text can be entered, use the Perkins style keyboard to do so and press the Left or Right Arrow to stop editing. 

Options in the settings menu are as follows: 

Model – Displays the model of the unit you are using (such as Brailliant BI 40)

Battery Level – Displays system battery level

Channel – Allows the user to toggle among “auto’, “Bluetooth”, and “USB”. The most common settings is “auto”, which allows the display to detect the setting needed depending on whether it is plugged into a computer.

Serial Number – Displays the serial number of the unit (which is also located in print on the back of the Brailliant if needed).

Firmware – Displays the current version of the firmware the Brailliant is currently running.

Auto Power Off – Permits the user to choose when/if the device will power off after a certain amount of inactive time. Options are disabled, five minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and one hour. 

USB Charge – When activated, this allows the Brailliant to charge when plugged into a laptop. As noted above, this will not significantly drain the battery of your computer, but if the battery life of your laptop tends to be short, then it might be helpful to disable this option.  

Sound – Toggles the sound cues made by the unit such as the power on/off sound.  

Bluetooth Name – The user may edit the display name that the device broadcasts when requesting to pair with your computer or phone.  

Bluetooth PIN – Displays the PIN number that is required when pairing the unit via Bluetooth. By default, the PIN is 1111

Protocol – The two communication protocols are HumanWare and OpenBraille. The majority of the time, you will want the HumanWare protocol.  

Braille Test – If the user believes that specific pins in the braille display may not be working properly, a test can be run. There are three tests

  • Line Test, where all cells activate dots by horizontal lines (i.e. dots one and four in all cells followed by dots two and five, and so on). This process repeats ten times.
  • Column Test, where cells individually first activate dots on the left side of the cell followed by dots on the right side of the cell. This process repeats four times.
  • All Test, where all dots in all cells simultaneously activate, deactivate, then activate again. This occurs only once.  

Restore Default Settings – When activated, this will restore all system settings to the defaults as described in the device’s user guide.  

Pairing With an iOS Device

When pairing with an iOS device, such as an iPhone or iPad, you will need to pair it via Bluetooth in the VoiceOver settings. Please see the resource section for further information since versions of the software may affect how connection is established.

Generally, all commands for braille displays and iOS devices are similar since it is the screen reader, not the device, that determines how the two interact. However, as previously mentioned, use of the Control Keys is important.  

Some students find removing their hands from the Perkins hand positioning to activate the Command Keys is disorienting at first, but most acclimate pretty easily. If you have a student with poor special awareness, orienting to the Command Keys may be more difficult.  

Pairing With a Windows Device

As previously mentioned, the Brailliant models (with the exception of the Brailliant 14) cannot function without a screen reader on a device the unit is tethered to. Therefore your PC must be running either JAWS or NVDA. At this time, Narrator is in the beta testing stage of providing braille support, but it is not yet stable. The units can be paired with iOS device using VoiceOver or Android Devices using Accessibility Suite (which contains BrailleBack).

The PC screen readers themselves do not provide the driver for the Brailliant. Humanware’s support page has the most current versions of the drivers available for download (see the link in the resources section).  

Initial setup for use with a Windows device requires some testing and when working with any sort of networked computers installing drivers and/or accessing them can be a challenge. The best advice is to make friends with your network administrator and bring him or her cookies or other delicious baked good...because this may require some work and configuring on their part to make the display work with the screen reader. For users of non-networked PCs (such as your home computer) there are fewer obstacles.

Each screen reader handles the braille display just a bit differently. For setup (such as braille translation code, cursor blink rate, and other settings), you should consult your specific screen reader’s user guide. More information is also available in the resources section below. 

However, Insert+1 in either screen reader will enter “Keyboard Help”, which echoes each keystroke and speaks its function. This can be incredibly useful when learning a new braille display.  

Overall Impressions

In general, the Brailliant displays are well built and sturdy. There are cases for the displays that are quite well made and provide extra protection.  

Use of the Command Keys, while initially awkward, becomes more natural over time and practice for most individuals. Students who have orientation and special awareness issues, may find the setup more challenging and may not do well with this model. This is generally a decision made on a case by case basis.  

Cursor routing keys, standard on most braille displays, are extremely beneficial and make editing much easier for braille readers. There are other brands of displays (most recent of which is the Orbit) that do not have cursor routing keys. This can make editing challenging, though not impossible. Inclusion of these cursor routing keys on the Brailliant devices will assist the user in more easily navigating and editing text shown on the braille display.

Resources

Link to BI Firmware Updated and Drivers for JAWS/NVDA (BI 40 and BI 80)

Brailliant BI 40 and BI 80 User Guide

Guide to Using Brailliant BI 40 and BI 80 with Screen Readers

Guide to Using Brailliant BI 40 and BI 80 with an iOS Device

So Many Braille Displays Which One is Right for My Student: Part 2 (BI 13 and Braille Trail Reader)

So Many Braille Displays Which One is Right for My Student Part 5 (focusing on the Braille Trail Reader LE)

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