Image shows logo of a icon of a man with a cane in a light blue circle. Underneath it says the words Blindness Awareness Month logo 2020.

The Orbit Reader 20 Plus is the latest model in the Orbit Reader line of refreshable braille displays available from RNIB. The original Orbit Reader 20 has unsurprisingly proved popular with braille users in its short life, thanks to its extensive compatibility with computers, smartphones and tablets, compact design, and relative affordability. The Orbit Reader 20 Plus builds on these foundations by adding onboard braille translation with calculator, calendar and alarm functions and is on sale at launch for £699 (excluding VAT), approximately £200 more than its sister model.

But how useful are these features for blind and partially sighted people at work, school or learning at home?

Read on to find out initial thoughts from the Technology team at Thomas Pocklington Trust.

Design

Image shows Orbit Reader 20 and Orbit Reader Plus side by side on a grey background

The Orbit Reader 20 Plus looks, feels, sounds, and acts exactly like the original Orbit Reader 20 model that it complements. Indeed, with both Orbit Reader braille displays placed next to each other, it is almost impossible to distinguish between them – they both feel virtually identical and can be accommodated by the same custom cases.

They each come with twenty braille cells, a traditional Perkins-style set of keys for braille entry, joystick navigation buttons, Dot-7 and Dot-8 keys for Backspace and Enter, and forward and backward panning buttons positioned at either end of the display cells. The power button, SD Card slot and micro USB port are located on the rear face. In short, the design is broadly typical of many historic and current braille displays.

 

Getting started

RNIB ships Orbit Reader 20 Plus with a handy braille and print hardcopy quick start guide. There is also an accompanying SD Card already present in the machine containing hundreds of electronic braille books from RNIB Reading Services as well as the full manual in English grade 1 and grade 2 braille. By default, the system and read/write braille languages will be set to Standard English Grade 1. Before going any further, we need to consider braille language settings as they are crucial to the key new feature of automatic translation.

 

Braille language support

Fundamentally, braille can be adapted for any language. Languages often have multiple braille codes to accommodate both uncontracted and contracted braille. Typically, Grade 1 is for uncontracted braille code and Grade 2 the standard for contracted braille. There are several Orbit Reader 20 Plus localisations available for English braille users. However, Orbit Reader 20 Plus does not ship with native support for Unified English braille (UEB) which has been adopted as the official braille standard in the UK since 2011.

Those wishing to use UEB will need to obtain the localisation file from the Orbit Reader 20 Plus localisation webpage and follow the instructions in the manual to activate it. Since automatic translation is especially powerful when used with contracted braille, this review was conducted with this Orbit Reader 20 Plus device set to use UEB Grade 2 braille.



Automatic translation

Automatic translation is easily the flagship feature of the Orbit Reader 20 Plus. In a nutshell, it enables text to be read in the user's preferred braille format, while allowing entered braille to be stored as text. This has huge implications. For example, any standard text file can be loaded straight onto the Orbit Reader 20 Plus and read in contracted braille, eliminating the need to translate materials in advance. Storing typed data as text also makes notes taken on the Orbit Reader 20 Plus more useful as they can be read directly on any computer, smartphone, or tablet. For instance, homework typed in braille can be read and corrected by parents and teachers alike, while meeting notes taken in braille can be processed by colleagues even if they do not know braille themselves.

In our initial testing, I successfully read in braille a text version of a strategy document and was able to review, search through and edit notes initially taken in braille on my laptop.



Reading and editing

The experience of reading and editing content on Orbit Reader 20 Plus is very similar to that provided by Orbit Reader 20. The commands for reading, navigating, and editing are identical, meaning that anyone already used to operating Orbit Reader 20 should find using Orbit Reader 20 Plus just as intuitive. The main advantage over the original Orbit Reader 20 comes with automatic translation, described above.



Connectivity

Orbit Reader 20 Plus can be connected to the same computers, smartphones, and tablets as its original counterpart. Indeed, inheriting this degree of design and capability is itself an advantage, ensuring Orbit Reader 20 Plus can provide braille support to a phenomenal array of equipment. braille is supported by virtually all major screen readers available on Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, iPadOS and Fire OS devices, meaning that both Orbit Reader 20 and Orbit Reader 20 Plus can be used to read and write content such as messages, or access eBooks when paired with a huge range of mainstream tech products.



Calculator

Calculators are traditionally found on refreshable braille equipment and Orbit Reader 20 Plus is no exception. The simple calculator application is discrete, responsive, and reasonably convenient and can be accessed from anywhere with a single command. However, operations are limited to basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with no support for further scientific or statistical functions. Furthermore, expressions can only be entered and displayed using traditional computer braille.



Calendar and Alarm

Orbit Reader 20 Plus also comes with limited calendar and alarm functions. Up to two alarms can be set independently and will flash the display when activated, though without making any additional sound or vibration. The calendar can display dates by month and can store appointments. However, I think it is fair to say that other devices such as smart speakers or smartphones have better built-in calendar and alarm functions.



Conclusion

As the latest addition to the relatively affordable Orbit Reader product line, Orbit Reader 20 Plus offers convenient braille access in many situations where braille might not otherwise be available or convenient. Automatic braille translation is certainly a welcome development continuing this trend. Yet the additional £200 cost is far from insignificant. In circumstances where features are the primary differentiating factor, there are plenty of other examples of refreshable braille equipment on the market that may prove more suitable. However, it is extremely encouraging to see innovation continuing among the Orbit Reader product family, of which Orbit Reader 20 Plus is a worthy member.