Blind Bargains

#ATIA20 Audio: A Menagerie Of Braille For Humanware And APH


We noted in our end of year wrap up show that Humanware's convention appearances were very popular with our listeners. Additionally, we noted in that same show, APH had an amazing 2019 with multiple stories working their way into our news lineups. One of those stories outlined that APH would be working on fostering future partnerships for growing their product lines on various platforms. In this interview Andrew Flatres, Braille Product Manager for Humanware, and newly minted APH member Greg Stilson, Director of Product Innovation, sit down with Joe to talk about two new Braille products and one new software announcement. Listen in, or read below, to learn more about the importance of the Educational market and how these new products can provide a solid steppingstone for those needing simple to use devices and software in the classroom environment. To learn more about the new products and partnerships at the American Printing House for the Blind, visit the APH website. And to learn more about the new software mentioned by Andrew, as well as other product news, visit the Humanware website

ATIA 2020 coverage is Brought to you by AFB AccessWorld.

For the latest news and accessibility information on mainstream and access technology, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon offerings, access technology book reviews, and mobile apps, and how they can enhance entertainment, education and employment, log on to AccessWorld, the American Foundation for the Blind's free, monthly, online technology magazine. Visit www.afb.org/aw.

Transcript

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Transcribed by Grecia Ramirez

From Orlando – almost live -- it’s blinGSargains.com coverage of ATIA 2020, brought to you by AFB AccessWorld.
For the latest news and accessibility information on mainstream and access technology; Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon offerings; access technology; book reviews; and mobile apps and how they can enhance entertainment, education, and employment, log onto AccessWorld, the American Foundation for the Blind's free monthly online technology magazine. www.AFB.org/AW.
Now, here’s Joe Steincamp.
JOE STEINCAMP: When I found out I would have an opportunity to learn about a new product at ATIA, I was ecstatic because it’s not often that the show is used to debut products. So it was really a treat to know that I was going to have an opportunity to sit down with Andrew and Greg, still lamenting his Packers, Stilson. He says, as a Houston Texans fan wearing J.J. Watt shoes.
GREG STILSON: Oh, boy.
JS: So, you know, it happens. It happens; right? You know –
GS: That was a tough one. That was – although I will say, we were not up 24 to nothing so I don’t know what –
JS: No. No, no, no. No one could blow a lead like Houston. We have done it many times, Buffalo Bills, the Oakland Raiders. So – no. If you want to learn how to make an amazing NFL come back and be on NFL films forever, come to Houston. That’s how we do it. We decided to take the Denver Broncos blow-out thing and make it an art form. So that’s what we do.
But that’s not why we came here, gentlemen. We came here to talk about some fantastic new products and some changes that are going on and partnerships, which I think is just amazing. So where do we want to start on this lovely discussion?
GS: Yeah. I – why don’t we start with my new role at APH, and then we can kind of move to the partnership with Humanware and kind of what’s going on there.
So as you may know, I took the role – this is my second official week on the job. So I got an incredibly large amount of information to learn, but I – it’s really – it’s almost like a coming home kind of experience here.
I spent almost 12 years of my career with Humanware and really focusing on education; right? And for me, education is – it’s my passion that drives everything that I do. And over the last two years, I had the privilege of working with an awesome team at Aira, which really expanded my ability and my knowledge of product. And I worked with some incredibly talented people and had an – just such a blast doing the work that we were doing. And what I’ve noticed, as time was progressing, as I was traveling, I would get to these education conferences and TVIs would come up and, even though I wasn’t with Humanware, they were asking me BrailleNote Touch questions about how their kids were struggling to do something, and it’s just – it was the education piece that always drew me back in. And recently, this opportunity with APH came up to focus on innovation with their team, specifically for education, and ultimately, for global expansion as well. We have a really awesome opportunity with APH where we can build some technology with some great partners, and there’s a push to bring that innovation globally as well, so not just focusing here in the States, but actually providing it all over the world.
And, I think, as we look at the way that Braille technology and tactile technology is expanding, you know, by the day, I think that we have an incredible opportunity at APH to do something awesome, and that, specifically with education, drew me back in and – so yeah. So this is my second week on the job.
My role is really going to be – to be assessing the classroom, actually understanding where the holes are in the accessibility of the curriculum that students are doing – are working on a daily basis and creating products that ease the access to that content; right? So to bring access to the STEM content that may be a challenge. You have students in a chemistry lab. Are there products that we can build or partner with to make them a more active participant in those chemistry labs or physics or any of that kind of thing that – maybe a blind student is more of a passive participant rather than an active one? And so –
You know, one of the things I mentioned is partnerships. And Craig Meador, our CEO, President of APH, is very focused on partnerships as the future of APH, because we can’t build everything ourselves. And there’s way too much incredible technology out there for us to want to do that; right? So APH really focuses on the need and what drives that need. What’s the problem that needs to be solved, and basically putting out a request for information to say, guys, here’s the problem that we’re looking to solve. What technology do you have that you believe could solve it, and let’s work together to build a product that’s going to be better for the kids in the classroom; right?
And so that’s where I’m really coming in and excited to work with our team. I’ve got so much to learn, but it’s an opportunity that I could not pass up, and I’m so happy to be here.
JS: Andrew, you’re like me, learning how to change contacts, you know, for people we know --
ANDREW FLATRES: Yes.
JS: -- as they change Emails and stuff. So there’s lots of opportunity with partnerships and the like and being able to provide tools that will work in education and other environments. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what the partnership means for Humanware?
AF: Sure. Well, I mean, it’s a great pleasure to be invited speaking to yourself, Joe, and Blind Bargains followers. It’s also a pleasure to have Greg talking about Braille products again.
JS: Yeah.
AF: Greg and I go back a long way from Humanware days, so it’s really great to have him back working in a field that I know he’s – he and I are both passionate about.
So in terms of the product side of things and partnerships, it started at a – is it like an RP or RFI, that APH sent out to all manufacturers and really – we believe, in terms of our products that they’re – intuitive is a really important aspect, not just for the student side of things, but for the TVIs, making sure that they understand the product is really important. So we’re going to introduce, not just one, but two products in partnership with APH today. And looking forward to telling your listeners more about these innovative Braille products.
JS: And I’ve had an opportunity to play with them before the mic started rolling, and I have to say that the quality is actually very good and intuitive in a way that I had not seen in a while, so definitely something new to talk about. Which one do we want to talk about first? Do we have a preference?
GS: Yeah. Why don’t we start with the Chameleon? So there’s two products we’re going to be introducing today. They’re called the Chameleon and the Mantis. Mantis Q40 and the Chameleon 20. And they’re both Braille products.
And I want to start with the why. And that’s really something that, you know, during the interviewing process and the discussion and when I was coming to APH, one of the things that I kept going back to is why are we building technology? Because I don’t want to build technology for technology’s sake; right? So it’s a matter of why – what’s the need that we’re going to build?
And what we came down to was we brought in – APH, prior to my arrival, brought in a group – several groups of TVIs to get their feedback. And I think this is something that’s extremely important -- and we’re going to be doing more of as time progresses -- to really get an understanding, not just of their feedback on existing products, but what are their kids doing in the classroom and where are they struggling? And related to existing problems, where are the kids not liking it, and what are they struggling with, and where are those challenges? And we learned an incredible amount of information. I think you were in those meetings?
AF: We both were, yes. Yes.
GS: Yup. And what was – when I was reading the reports on that, what was interesting was there was a lot of things related to how intuitive the product was, whether it could do certain things, but there was also a lot related to aesthetics; right? I think that’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked; right? A blind student wants to be like everybody else; right? They want to be able to change their phone case three different times depending on their mood just like anybody else does; right? Or change the appearance of the product based on their personality; right?
And so one of the things that you’ll see in the Chameleon is – and it’s part of its name branding – is that this product will be able to – the case of the Chameleon will actually be able to be changed based on the color and the feel that the student wants to use that day; right? So in the box, it’ll come with three cases along with a flippable case that Andrew has here as well. And the student can customize the look and the feel of the case depending on how they feel that day. And I think that that, in addition to all the functionality, is a really important aspect that the student can be – they can customize it based on how they feel.
JS: And you see that, having, you know, the history of Purple People Eater.
GS: Yeah.
AF: Yeah.
JS: And the big lime green thing, you know.
GS: Uh-huh.
JS: That used to be a thing where some people would say, hey, that looks so distinct, and nobody will take it because it looks like a Braille Display kind of thing; right? These look and feel very much like devices that feel comfortable to the hand, feel ergonomic and have really good port placement.
GS: And so what is the Chameleon 20? The Chameleon 20 is a 20-cell Braille Display. I’ll go through the specks and the features, and then if you want to kind of talk about the software? Is that what works?
AF: Yeah. Sure.
GS: All right. So the – on the left side of the device, if I start from the front, there’s a USB host port so you can throw a thumb drive on there with any files on it. On the left also is the power button. You can tap it to put it to sleep, tap it again to wake it up, and then hold it to shut it down. There’s a USBC port behind it; that’s for charging. And then on the back left corner, if you move to the back of the device, there’s an SD slot that you can store files as well. If you flip the device over, there’s a removable battery that provides 15 hours of battery life. And it’s a removable – there’s just one screw – or two screws that you pull out, and you can remove the battery yourself.
On the face of the device, you have the Humanware kind of feeling keys that I think a lot of people are used to, the Perkins keys. I will say that they are really quiet. This is -- it’s a very quiet keyboard. You have two spacebars beneath – or below the Braille Display, and then you have the thumb keys on the front, four thumb keys. There is an extra button in the middle, and Andrew probably knows a little bit more about what this one does, but I believe -- correct me if I’m wrong – it toggles between – if you have it connected to an external device or you’re using the internal functions; is that correct?
AF: Yes. It’s going to be used for multiple things. So it’s also used to exit the Terminal mode. But also a way of getting straight back to your main menu.
GS: Right. So if you want to talk a little bit about the things on it.
AF: Yeah. Sure. So speaking of hardware, just one of the additional things I’d like to mention is the wireless capability. This is something new going toward a Braille Display, having wireless capability. So what does that bring? Well, the first thing it brings is allowing you to instantly upgrade your device over wirelessly, and the second thing is the ability to download books from the likes of Bookshare and the NFB Newsline. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how a user would interact, instantly grabbing that content from this one device. There’s no more need of having multiple devices to get all that digital content.
GS: When we were looking at what a Braille Display with intelligence needed; right? We wanted to start with one of the basic needs of any sighted kid, any kid that’s going to be in education, blind or sighted; right? So we kind of came down to – and this is all feedback that came from the TVIs – is on your desk, you need at least a paper and pencil to take notes, or paper and pen. You need your textbooks to learn the curriculum; you need, in many cases a calculator to do, you know, to solve basic math things; and you always need to tell time; right? So those are your four basic things that was unanimously, you know, mentioned by TVIs. There’s a lot of other things they mentioned, but we wanted to make sure we covered the basics; right? And so the apps that Andrew and I are going to go into a little bit more, we felt, kind of cover those basic needs that a blind student needs on their desk.
AF: So we’ll start with the first application that’s using stand alone, is the editor. So, with the editor, you can instantly translate Braille to print on the fly. It has an onboard Braille translation, and you just have the choice of several different tables to choose from. They could use the Liblouis, they could use the Duxbury tables entirely, giving them the full flexibility of that. And that’s what I also love about these devices -- is the flexibility. Greg mentioned SD card USB ports. So now, it’s possible that you can create documents in the editor and then save them as text files directly onto USB or USD card to give that to a sighted peer or TVI. And likewise, it works reversely, so you could actually have a TXT, a DOCX document, and, again, open that, reading it in your preferred medium and contracted Braille.
So on the editor side of things, it’s a basic editor. In terms of formatting, it will just show the basic formatting of, like, a new line mark and things like that.
We then have the calculator. Simple calculator, not too complex, we wanted to make it really easy to use, just to do your simple equations.
Followed, then, by file management. I think it’s really important to make sure that you manage your files and folders. That’s an important role to learn how to store all your different documents. And the library, we just touched base on the, you know, what libraries such as Bookshare, the NFB Newsline. Terminal, so connecting to different types of host devices so – such as your VoiceOver, Android, JAWS. It can connect up to five devices by Bluetooth and one USB.
I will say that it also will support the new HID protocol, HID Braille protocol. You may not know too much about that, but it’s a new protocol that’s coming, and this device will be supportive of that protocol from day one.
GS: And then, of course, it’s got a clock in it.
AF: Oh. Forgot the clock.
JS: Don’t forget the clock.
AF: Yeah. We definitely need to know the time.
JS: Hey, that’s the go-fast stripe. Now, in the past, there’s been Braille Displays that have had visual connectivity for teachers who are teaching visually. Are there such features like that here, or is it mostly going to be save and hand off?
GS: No. This is – the internal functions of this device are exclusive to the student themselves; right? So what are they going to be doing on their own? What – are they going to be taking notes? Are they going to be doing those things? You know, when you look at products, they like the BrailleNote Touch; right, which has an embedded screen. You can also do TeamViewer to different devices. It’s a much more advanced product. It’s a very versatile product.
We were looking for, how do we accomplish the basic needs of a student and – in a product that can be put on quota; right? And from a quota funding perspective, we want to make sure that TVIs and school districts have access to products that are going to grow with the student, accomplish those basic needs, and be really powerful devices; right? The part that was always frustrating for me as a blind product manager as well is that we didn’t want people making – having to make decisions on, you know, do I – if I’m going to be buying a Braille Display, does it only work with external devices; right? And then I have to buy a different device for the blind student to take their notes and to do other things; right? So from a – being able to put on quota and funding and stuff like that, we wanted to make sure that a product like this was available so that you can kind of get the best of both worlds.
JS: I think that’s important to hit, because I had a four-track recorder when I was in school, you know, that was mine.
AF: Uh-huh.
JS: You know, there were certain things that you would have, as a student, that were exclusively yours to be able to take back and forth to take into class, after class. And so it’s good to know that this was – your intentions were specific towards those use cases. You weren’t looking for a, you know, a Swiss army knife.
GS: Right. And I don’t think that that – that’s not probably APH’s best role, because we also have to keep the cost down; right? To get it into quota funding and things like that, it has to be, quote unquote, affordable; right? So it has to be a lower-cost device.
JS: Durability.
GS: Durability. And I think you can – you touched the case. This thing is – I remember I handed this to my wife one time, and she was like, wow. You could really drop that thing. And I was like, let’s not do that.
JS: Yeah. Exactly. Especially in the prototype phase.
GS: Yeah. Exactly. So yeah. So that’s the Chameleon 20. Our expectation is to have it this spring with the quota funding process and getting it available on quota. It does take a little bit of extra time, so we are – our hope is to have these for viewing in the booth at CSUN and shipping very shortly after. From a pricing perspective, on quota, our hope is to get this below $1500. $1400 is the ideal price. APH is going to be doing a dual pricing structure.
So because of the laws and the federal stuff that we have with the quota funding, the quota funding price will be a lower price available on the quota funds, and there will be a second price available to everybody. That – so I just want to make sure that everybody understands that just because this is available on quota funds, you can also buy it for yourself as your own personal device as well.
JS: And it fits in a pocket. It’s actually very nice in where you can move this. And of course, the case that we had talked about earlier. It really would fit in a very large-sized purse or even a clutch, if you were so daring. You wouldn’t be able to put anything else there.
GS: I have a sport jacket on right now, and I can slide it in the inside pocket of the sport coat.
JS: Yeah. When Greg handed it to me, the first thing I said was, oh. That reminds me of the old Pocket or the BK or the Pronto, for those of you who are looking for size comparisons before you go and see the official specks. So –
GS: Awesome.
JS: -- there you go.
But as they say, Andrew, that’s not all; is it?
AF: That’s not all. No. We’re now also introducing an – well, APH is introducing, in partnership with Humanware – is the Mantis Q40. Of course, APH have got this, sort of, forest name going on here. Maybe Greg knows more about it, but it’s great.
I mean, this really is – when we first designed this product – I’ve got to say – I was impressed. I was really impressed at the light weight of it. Keyboard: the sound of the keyboard, the feel of the keyboard. A lot of time and effort went into the keyboard because that was going to be the main use of the input side of things. It was important, from a user’s perspective, that the keyboard was good. So a lot of time was spent on that and really proud of the end product, and by the sounds of it, everyone else is.
GS: This has been a product that I was really excited about when I saw it. So the why. We'll start with the why because that’s what we’re going to – I’m getting everybody to focus on the why. Why did we build something like this? So what is this product?
If we look at it, it’s a 40-cell refreshable Braille Display with a full-sized QWERTY keyboard that is a laptop-type QWERTY keyboard; okay? So it’s really the first of its kind as a refreshable Braille Display. There’s been notetakers that have had QWERTY keyboards and things like that. This device is a QWERTY-style refreshable Braille Display. It does have the same intelligence that we talked about with the Chameleon, but it’s a QWERTY keyboard device that can be paired with any device, whether it’s an Apple product, Android product, Windows, or Mac. I think Linux as well. I’m not sure about that. This being the new guy, I don’t always know the things.
Having said that, why did we build it? What we learned from TVIs is obviously, learning keyboarding is a crucial, transferable skill that translates directly into higher education and, eventually, into the workplace; right? So Perkins entry is an extremely valuable and an efficient way of taking notes, getting documents created, all that kind of stuff. But when you get into the workplace, you need to use a regular QWERTY keyboard for the majority of your work; right? And so to have that transferable skill, what we were noticing and what the TVIs told us was that oftentimes, when they would go over to work on their keyboarding, the Braille Display that they were using or the notetaker that they were using were going in their backpack, and they weren’t using a Braille device to be able to get that multimodal feedback.
So using a tool, let’s say like a talking typing teacher, the Talking Typer, you get the audio feedback, but you’re not getting the tactile feedback of the characters that you’re writing, the words that you’re – where did you make your mistake? You’re using the arrow keys to go character by character and listen to that rather than looking at a Braille Display and seeing, where did I have my misspelling and things like that. And that felt wrong. That felt like they were making a decision to learn typing or use a Braille Display, and it didn’t need to be a one or the other type of situation.
And so this device, the keyboard, as Andrew said, is phenomenal. I’m really happy with the travel distance of the keys, the feel of it, and it’s really a keyboard that is transferable to any platform that you go to. So you can connect this to your Windows device and use any of the screen readers out there. You can connect it to your iPhone and send text messages, Email, and all that kind of stuff as well.
So yeah. As mentioned, all of the same editor, Braille terminal, all the library functionality that we mentioned with Chameleon is inside of this device as well. But it’s a different approach. It’s an approach to make sure that students are still gaining that transferable skill while keeping Braille under their fingertips.
JS: I’m glad you mentioned about the travel because that was the first thing I did when you handed it to me was I roamed my hands over it, and I noticed immediately how effortlessly you could move between reading braille and typing QWERTY. And that was really impressive to me, because you’re right. It is one of those things where it becomes an either-or. A school has to make a decision based on funds, which one do we go to? Okay, well, we’ve got more people in this space, so let’s go ahead and lean in this direction, and then you start to lose those abilities to move that skill set across. So I agree with you all the way, and just holding it, that’s what I’ve noticed.
GS: And I think – why did we go with a 40-cell? It was really for the STEM usage. As time progresses, with more and more kids going into programming introductions and things like that, and, you know all the efforts that we’re doing with Microsoft and Code Jumper; right? This feels like the next step as students go and actually start writing their lines of code, to take a device like this where you have Braille at your fingertips and you have a long enough display to get enough code on it. It’s a device that you can write your code in your editor if you want to write in computer Braille or UEB or any of that. And if you want to go to your computer and write directly on that, then you can use the same keyboard, the same device, and it just transfers right over.
JS: And small enough that it can carry easily into a backpack or travel with you, move it from room to room fairly easily, and fairly durable because if you need to share this between classrooms, you have that opportunity as well.
GS: Yeah. And it’s – I’d be remiss if I forgot, it does also – you can do a keyboard command and you can switch between QWERTY keyboard and six-dot key entry as well. So Perkins key entry. So you can use the S, D, and F keys and the J, K, L as six-key. So if this is the only device that somebody can get, you can do both instruction.
JS: I hate to drag this out again, but that’s not all. Andrew. We’ve talked a lot about hardware, and there’s some software we should probably talk about as well. You had let me know prior to the convention that there was something definitely coming up from Humanware that is related to education. Let’s take a moment and talk about that.
AF: Yeah. Sure. So this is something new, I think, that assistive technology like Humanware and other assistive technologies are offering. It’s an application that will allow users, teachers, TVIs, and parents to get more engagement on the actual products, learning about our products. One of the biggest points that keeps on coming up every so often is, oh, these products are getting too complex. And as technology starts advancing, more capabilities start arising. So it’s really important to make sure that the TVIs, teachers, students know how to use the products. We want to make sure that they use the products at their full potential.
So we are actually launching an application called the Humanware Buddy app. It’s a free application that will be available on both iOS and Android platforms. And it’s really going to give you the tools to have an enjoyable experience with products like the well-known Touch Plus, ProdigiConnect 12, and Victor Reader products, all products that Humanware support would be valuable on this application.
We all know reading from a manual – I mean I don’t know the last time that you read through a manual, Joe or Greg, it’s not ideal. It’s probably the last-ever resort you go to, you know, if you’re fired on trying to achieve a task and go through that large amount of text is just very long-winded. So what we have done is created some snapshot text, some step-by-step easy guides to follow. So you could search for “how do I create a document?” And a document will come up showing you those step-by-step guides and how to do that.
It’s going to be a really useful tool, certainly in education. It was purposely designed for the TVIs because we understand that they haven’t got the time to learn these products. They haven’t got the time to phone support. So really, it’s a matter of they just pull it out of their pocket, it’s on their phone, it’s on their app, and they can interact with these products and help the students learn that product.
JS: And language, I imagine, is a big part of that too, not only just the wall of text, but keeping up with things, so having an – what is essentially a glossary or a table of contents to at least get you to where you’re thinking about, or even promoting discovery will be a good thing for just the idea of learning more about something. And I guess that is a big part of the philosophy as well.
AF: Yeah. I mean, it’s not all about the text as well. I mean, there’s – people learn slightly different ways. I mean, some people would like to read content, some people would like to watch videos. So we’ll also include snapshot video tutorials as well into this application. So really looking forward to getting that out.
We have showcased this app to a number of TVIs, and they are just looking forward to this. I think it’s long-waited for. A lot of the times, people don’t know where to get these resources from, so it’s just this one portal, one app that they can just grab whatever contents they want about that product off Humanware.
JS: Well, that was a lot of information, product announcements, both hardware and software. So a trifecta, if you will. I want to thank you gentlemen for taking so much of your time here at the show and getting away from what is apparently a very large crowd here at ATIA, bigger than I remember.
GS: Yeah. I’m really happy we were able to do this interview in the quiet of a hotel room rather than down in the – I’ve done those interviews with you before, Joe.
JS: Yes.
GS: And --
JS: We have yelled into microphones on the floor, yes.
AF: Yes.
GS: So this is fantastic, and it’s so great to be back on Blind Bargains.
JS: Andrew, thank you again for your time, and I appreciate you giving us an overview, and look forward to seeing you gentlemen in Anaheim in just a few weeks.
GS: Let the whirlwind begin, man.
AF: Yeah.
JS: There you go.
AF: Thank you, Joe.
JS: No problem. Greg and I will have already played Mortal Kombat 11 by then so –
GS: Sure. Sure, sure.
JS: Joker. Right. There you go.
Thanks, guys.
GS: Thank you.
AF: Thank you.
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Joe Steinkamp is no stranger to the world of technology, having been a user of video magnification and blindness related electronic devices since 1979. Joe has worked in radio, retail management and Vocational Rehabilitation for blind and low vision individuals in Texas. He has been writing about the A.T. Industry for 15 years and podcasting about it for almost a decade.


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