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The Vario Ultra Has Landed

Contributed by Joel Zimba, Special Projects Coordinator, MDTAP

Just in time for the holidays, the initial orders of the Baum Vario Ultra are arriving on our shores. Several months ago, I mentioned this portable Braille display after seeing a demo version  of the unit.

The Vario Ultra is one of just a few devices which some call Smart Displays. They feature limited onboard computing functionality, such as note taking and a calculator, but are primarily Braille displays which are intended to connect to other devices rather than function as stand-alone Notetakers.

For comparison, we’ll have to provide a quick overview of refreshable Braille technology.  Currently, refreshable Braille displays just connect to computers and increasingly, portable devices like smartphones and tablets.  These don’t do much, other than display Braille sent to it from a host device. By comparison, the Braille notetaker is a much more expensive solution which functions much like a notebook style computer in its own right.  Generally a Braille notetaker will feature both Braille and speech output, and while many tasks, such as document creation and printing can be done from the device itself, they can also be used as Braille displays.

In the current market, there are two main models of Braille notetaker: the Braillenote family from Humanware, and the BrailleSense from Hims.  Both devices offer varying size and keyboard configurations.  This is aging technology.  The embedded Windows operating system is obsolete and the applications can’t keep up with modern demands.  A decade ago, a Braille notetaker was the clear choice for blind students and professionals.  Now they are one asteroid impact away from extinction.

That’s where the Smart Display comes into play. They are smaller, lighter, cheaper (often by half) and able to keep up by virtue of not trying to do the work themselves. For example, you could browse the Web using your Braille Display connected to an iPhone, but take notes for an upcoming meeting using the built-in editor function of a Smart Display.  When it’s time to present on the topic, one device allows for quick reference, which is much more difficult when trying to juggle two devices at once.

The Vario Ultra and the Braille Edge have appeared to fill in this technological gap. Both are comparable in their feature set, though the Vario Ultra can do a few tricks the slightly older Edge cannot.  There will likely be competition between the two manufacturers in the coming years—much of which will be fought through software updates.

We expect to have the Vario Ultra in the MDTAP technology library in the near future. If you would like to see how it compares to other refreshable Braille devices, we can demonstrate them to you side-by-side.

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