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American Foundation for the Blind Review the Focus Blue

Original article

Freedom Scientific Focus on Braille, Part 1: A Review of the Focus Blue 14 Braille Display

Focus 14 Blue

By the last quarter of 2012, Freedom Scientific had announced two new braille displays: the Focus Blue 40 and the Focus Blue 14. These displays were proclaimed by the company to be something new and noteworthy in the world of refreshable braille displays, but many of us didn’t immediately take notice.

Sometimes into every life (or exhibit booth) a little bad luck must fall. That was the case where this reviewer and the Focus Blue 14 were concerned. The first few times I attempted to have a look at the product, something went awry. Over a period of six months or so I approached a Freedom Scientific vendor at several different events and asked to have a look at the 14-cell braille display, only to learn that it wasn’t charged or for some other reason chose not to perform.

I include this anecdotal information as a friendly reminder that a first look can be misleading for all of us. Because of those negative encounters, I had more or less dismissed these displays; I am pleased and relieved that a chance encounter turned that opinion on its head.

A friend put a Focus Blue 14 in my hands at a social gathering and encouraged me to play around with it a little. I pulled my iPhone from my bag, attempted a pairing, and was instantly dazzled! At that point, I had paired probably a half dozen different refreshable braille devices with iPhones and this time, the speed and ease with which the pairing occurred was unprecedented and impressive.

Both the Focus Blue 14 and its sibling, the Focus Blue 40, are lightweight, portable, lower-priced than refreshable braille devices have been in the past, and offer features that will appeal to the casual braille user as well as the seasoned braille expert seeking more sophisticated functions. While these two displays are very similar, I will discuss them individually in the interest of clarity. Part 1 of this review will be centered on the smaller unit, the Focus 14, and Part 2 on the larger display, the Focus 40.

Out of the Box

The first thing you notice about the Focus Blue 14 braille display is that it is, well, adorable! People have stopped me to comment on its appearance everywhere I have pulled it out, whether they are “insiders” accustomed to seeing assistive technology products or just innocent bystanders, noticing that I am reading or writing on this eye-catching and cute blue gizmo.

As its name suggests, the unit sports royal blue keys on a black base. It measures 3 inches in height, 6 inches in width, and is about a half-inch thick. The mix of royal blue, black, and almond in addition to its size make it an eye-catching device. Actually, it is aesthetically pleasing as well, a fact in which Ron Miller, Freedom Scientific’s product manager of blindness hardware takes particular pride.

Focus 14 and 40 Blue next to a rulerThe Focus Blue 14 has an eight-key Perkins-style keyboard on top, below which are 14 cursor routing buttons, 14 braille cells, a space bar and, at either end, a mode button and a navigation rocker button. On the front edge of the unit are eight additional controls (two each of selectors, rockers, panning buttons, and shift keys), all of which are used in various combinations with the keys on top of the unit to perform an impressive array of commands. The display has a smooth feel and all keys require only a very light touch. The braille dots themselves can be adjusted for firmness to suit the individual braille user. On the left edge of the Focus Blue 14 are the USB port and its Power button.

Included in the box with the Focus 14 are its AC power adapter, USB cable, and carrying case. Most notable was a beautifully bound and excellently formatted complete user’s guide in Grade 2 braille. The user’s guide is also included on a CD and can be downloaded from the Freedom Scientific website.

Test Drive

The Focus 14 offers both Bluetooth and USB connectivity. As mentioned above, the device is a breeze to pair with an iPhone. I have now paired several units with several iOS devices, and each time the process is blessedly seamless. Similarly, when the Focus 14 and iOS device have been separated or inactive for a time, re-establishing connectivity proceeds smoothly.

The braille keyboard is extremely quiet, enabling one to read and write in any situation without distracting others.

With the Focus 14 paired with my iPhone 5, I have written hundreds of text messages, read and replied to my e-mail, navigated countless other apps, and read books in braille.

There is something so distinctly personal about reading a text message with your fingers and typing a reply that you can read as it emerges on the braille display. Yes, of course, blind and low vision people can accomplish such tasks by listening to audio output as well, but the experience of reading and writing text and e-mail messages with the Focus Blue 14 augments that experience. You have complete control over your message input and output. Reading and writing simultaneously on the braille display is a close simulation of the experience enjoyed by sighted users. As with any braille device paired with an iOS device, VoiceOver is necessary for the braille to function, but speech can be muted. For those who have not experimented with such devices, it warrants pointing out that, when speech is muted on the phone, the experience of sending and receiving text or e-mail messages is also rendered more personal by virtue of its being private. That is, no one can read the content flashing on that braille display except the person in whose hands it is held!

Although reading documents, magazines, and books is possible with this tiny display, many braille users will find the limitation of only 14 cells more appropriate for shorted items like quick identification of buttons and icons on the iPhone or iPad screen.

Due to its shortened display length, Focus Blue 14 is best suited for use with smart phones and mobile devices, it can also be connected via Bluetooth or USB to serve as a completely reliable refreshable braille display for your computer.

I connected it via USB to a netbook running Windows XP and JAWS 15 and was once again pleasantly surprised by the ease with which the two were united. Driver installation was automatic, taking literally just seconds between connecting the display to the computer and enjoying complete braille access to the computer’s screen. It was the fastest such installation I have ever witnessed.

Switching the Focus 14 between USB and Bluetooth pairings was also smooth sailing. By simply removing the USB cable from the computer when wishing to use the phone, the Focus 14 quickly found its connection to the phone and was once again paired with the phone. Similarly, once I plugged it back in, it was ready to resume use with the computer.

Battery Power

The Focus Blue 14 uses a USB cable to recharge either via its AC adapter or while connected to a computer. On AC power, the unit is fully recharged in about three hours. Once the battery is fully charged, manufacturer guidelines suggest that the Focus 14 can be used for up to about 20 hours. Actual performance was sometimes even longer than this estimate.

Final Analysis

Freedom Scientific’s own product manager for this line of products is a proud proponent of braille and the evidence that he and other braille aficionados had input in developing this display is clear. The Focus Blue 14 is a pleasure to use. It is small, lightweight, and appeals esthetically to the senses of sight and touch. It is simple enough to be used out of the box by most braille users, and complex enough to satisfy the needs of sophisticated lovers of technology. Freedom Scientific focused on braille when this product was in development and, fortunately for many braille-using customers, no one looked the other way until the job was done!