Contributed by Jim McCarthy, Executive Director, MDTAP
Recently, MDTAP received our long awaited VarioUltra 20 cell refreshable braille display among the newest additions to our demonstration and loan library. I promptly took control of it to learn how it works so I’ll share some thoughts about it now.
The Vario Ultra comes in 20 and 40 cell models and ours is a 20 cell. All who have seen it here at MDTAP comment about its small size. Someone suggested that when in its carrying case, it reminded her of a woman’s clutch purse. Our unit weighs only .7 pounds and its dimensions are 7.4 inches wide, 3.5 inches deep and .7 inches high. The larger 40 cell is 5 inches longer and .4 pounds heavier.
The VarioUltra is in a group of braille displays people refer to as smart displays. All displays show braille provided to them from a computer or mobile phone. There are note takers like the BrailleNote Apex or Hims Braille Sense, both of which can include refreshable displays and offer a vast array of internal applications but also can be used as displays rendering content from another device in braille. The Vario is somewhere between these two. A key point for future borrowers of the Vario is that as a display, it offers no speech, so unlike the Braille Sense and Apex, when in notetaker mode, there will be no speech from the Vario, only Braille.
I told someone that I enjoyed using one of the small displays with a keyboard and was told that model was something like an elephant riding a bicycle, rather crowded and perhaps a bit unstable. Though the Vario keyboard is in a small space, I think it most unlikely that one would describe it that way. It has 8 braille keys, the standard 6 dots and the two used in 8-dot computer braille that can serve other functions. These are configured in 2 arks, one for the left hand and the other for the right, with the dots 3 left and dot 6 right furthest from the user. Placing one’s pointer through little fingers on the braille keys allows the thumbs to rest comfortably on the thumb keys, which serve as a split space bar. Between the thumb keys is a round button with a raised ring around its circumference serving as a five way (left, right, up down and pressable) Baum refers to as the Navistick. A multitude of functions can be accomplished using the navistick, which is readily accessible and very efficient. The front of the Vario, that part closest to the user containing the thumb keys and navistick is at about a 45 degree angle to the top of the unit where the display and braille keys are located. To the left of the left thumb key are two keys referred to as system keys 1 and 2 – with s1 closest to the left edge of the unit and s2 closest to the left thumb key. To the right of the right thumb key is the same configuration of 2 system keys – s3 closest to the right thumb key and s4 closest to the right edge of the unit. On the left side, braille display keys 1, 2, and 3 run vertically with display key 1 at the back of the Vario. Along the right edge of the unit are keys 4, 5 and 6 with display key 4 at the back with the 6 keys having the configuration of a very spread out braille cell.
One of the features making the Vario Ultra unique among displays is the number of devices to which it can connect. The display connects to a USB device and 4 additional Bluetooth devices. Using the system key 2 and one other key each for USB and the 4 Bluetooth connections an ultra user quickly moves among connected devices.
I only have an iPhone connected by Bluetooth now but have moved through the 5 channels, an easy task. I would have expected that if when I paired my phone to the ultra for the first time, the pairing occurred on channel 4, my phone would always appear on channel 4 but that is not the case. When one turns off the ultra or it goes into its standby mode to conserve battery, the Bluetooth connection is terminated. Taking it out of standby or turning it back on does not reinstitute Bluetooth when in braille display mode but instead shows the USB on the display. The user must chose a Bluetooth channel and that turns Bluetooth on, an action that happens quickly and effortlessly once triggered. With Bluetooth on, a paired device like an iPhone indicates which of the 4 channels the connection will take place. With that information, the user can hit the system 2 key in conjunction with braille dot 4, 5, 6, or 7 for Bluetooth channels 1-4 easily making the connection.
The Ultra also switches easily from display mode to note taker mode. This is accomplished by the slide of a switch on the left edge of the Ultra. In notetaker mode, the Ultra acts as many of the note takers we know and love with the greatest difference being that there is no speech. A user can write in braille mode or in rich text format in its word processor. The user can read the latest Microsoft Word files but cannot edit these. There is also a PDF reader so PDF files that are not image based can be read using the Ultra. It has a calculator that includes scientific functions in addition to the usual calculator functions and memories. There are several timers and alarms including count down timer, stop watch and wake up alarms. Programs not included in the Ultra are an email program, web access and built in access to NLS BARD and to Bookshare. There is also no media player or radio. For me the absence of these does not weigh against my interest in the device. Especially because it costs significantly less than note takers with these features. In my opinion, these features often do not work well in the note takers or are readily available in other devices.
Experienced users of note takers are familiar with chording commands – a press of the space bar in conjunction with one or more braille keys to initiate a command. The ultra has thumb keys something like a split space bar. Thumb key 9, the left most of these is the primary key used to initiate commands with key 0, the right most of these being a space bar in note taker mode. Some commands require both thumb keys 9 and 0 with some combination of keys 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and or 8. In my brief experience, there are some challenging commands that required several fingers to implement. Baum asserts that there is a shortcut for every single command in the note taker mode
The VarioUltra has a braille display mode. In this mode, the unit provides the information for the computer device to which it is connected. There are drivers in order that users can connect to JAWS on a computer if later versions of JAWS are available. JAWS connections can be done by USB or Bluetooth depending on what the user prefers or needs. I have not connected this ultra with JAWS yet so I really can’t say more. Users of MVDA and WindowEyes can also use VarioUltra.
Among those who are braille readers and writers who want to pair a display with an iOS or Android device to enhance portability, the VarioUltra has been highly anticipated. Here at MDTAP, we are glad to have ours and encourage you to borrow it and run it through its paces. I think you will be glad you did.