What does the industry currently look like?
Right now, there are a few solutions that can assist in working with your smartphone if you have a visual impairment. The first item on the menu is braille displays.
Braille reading displays
Braille reading displays can range in price from 600 US dollars up to 18.000 US dollars. Over the last 5 years, advancements in the field have significantly reduced the costs. Initially, the main driver of costs for braille displays was the underlying technology they’re based on: braille cells or actuators. Most of the devices use ceramic piezoelectric bimorphs, which raise a braille dot connected to them when excited by an electrical control signal. Meaning, that for each individual dot a separate bimorph control is needed to use it.
Luckily, there are advancements in this field. In 2017 the Orbit Reader was introduced. In collaboration with The Transforming Braille Group, they located a manufacturer willing to produce a braille display reader for commercial resale within an acceptable price range. Apart from Orbit, multiple other companies and researchers are continuously working on finding new ways of producing cheaper braille cells.
However, it is really important to keep in mind that these cheap braille displays also have some consequences. Low-cost braille displays tend to have 14 – 20 cells, meaning that you can only read a maximum of 20 characters at once, significantly reducing your reading speed. Moreover, the cheaper displays like the orbit writer do not have the same build quality as the more established and expensive braille displays like the Focus 40 or the HumanWare Brailliant BI 40.
Apart from Braille reading devices, there are multiple solutions that offer merely braille input and not the option to read braille. Lately, the Orbit Writer has increased in popularity. Braille notetakers range in price from 99 US dollars up to 900 US dollars. These solutions are more explicitly designed for smartphones, whereas braille reading displays are originally developed for computers.
A short overview of different braille computers currently available:
HumanWare Brailliant BI 40 – 3000 Us dollars
HIMS Smart Beetle Bluetooth USB UltraPortable Display Keyboard – 1000 US dollars
Braille EDGE 40 by MAGNIFYING AIDS – 2400 US dollars
FOCUS 14 and FOCUS 40 Blue by Freedom Scientific – 1295 to 3000 US dollars.
Orbit Reader 20 – 600 US dollars.
Orbit Writer – 100 US dollars.
Harpo BraillePen Slim – 400 US dollars
The second option is QWERTY keyboards. These are most often Bluetooth keyboards like the Logitech K380 or any other ordinary QWERTY keyboard. These keyboards are mainly useful to increase the typing speed on the mobile phone. Operating or using TalkBack / VoiceOver gestures can be quite tricky on the QWERTY keyboard unless you are a more experienced user.
A short overview of the different Bluetooth QWERTY keyboards:
Logitech K380 – 50 US dollars
Penclic KB3 – 75 US dollars
OMOTON Ultra-Slim Bluetooth Keyboard – 20 US dollars
Apple Magic keyboard – 99 US dollars
Why the Hable One is cheaper than braille displays
There are several differentiating factors between a braille display and the Hable One keyboard. Let’s start with the obvious. Braille displays are used for typing and reading texts using braille. Whereas the Hable One is only used for input and uses the audio output to read texts.
The expensive technology that allows braille reading is also what leads to the high cost of these devices. Now, being able to read certainly has added benefits, but the question is, do you need this in every situation, especially if you are using a smartphone. Because apart from the function of reading braille, the Hable One out qualifies modern braille displays.
Apart from the expensive technology, large braille displays tend to be paid not by the end-user. Instead, health insurances or other instances pay for these products. Often, this is a package deal where training is added for the end-user. For Hable, on the other hand, we want to give autonomy to the end-user and make sure it is affordable for the individual. Besides, the Hable is extremely intuitive and with the added ‘getting started guide’ and help videos, you do not require any training.
Why the Hable One is more expensive than QWERTY keyboards
There are many great Bluetooth Keyboards out there and nowadays almost all of them are compatible with the smartphone. The price range for these keyboards starts at 10 US dollars up to 150 US dollars. So, how do these keyboards compare to the Hable One and why is there a difference in price?
A good way to approach this is by understanding how both products differ and the added value of the Hable One over the QWERTY Keyboard. Starting with the first point:
Portability. Nowadays Bluetooth keyboards are relatively small, but almost all of them require a bag to take them with you. This is particularly annoying when you simply need to write a small text or use a small action on your smartphone. Taking out the keyboard from your bag is annoying and takes unnecessary time.
Now, there are several Bluetooth keyboards that fit in your pocket. However, these keyboards are particularly hard to use and can only be operated with your thumbs. This means that for most people your typing speed is much lower. Moreover, the number of mistakes you make is much higher and resulting in an annoying experience.
Availability. In line with the previous point, Bluetooth keyboards require a tabletop or stand and can’t be used while standing or walking. This defies the purpose of using a smartphone and limits the user in many situations.
Speed. Bluetooth keyboards are developed to assist in fast typing. But typing in QWERTY also means that you make many more mistakes and for a lot of people who are blind, typing in QWERTY is much slower than braille. With the Hable One, you hardly lift your fingers and feel much more control while typing. Next to typing speed, controlling VoiceOver or TalkBack is specifically slow and not intuitive. The Hable One completely outperforms the QWERTY keyboards in this area.
Product Quality. Especially when you look at the cheaper end of Bluetooth keyboards, the quality is so-so, with plastics that are not sustainable. The Hable One is developed in the Netherlands, uses sustainable plastics and can be regarded as a premium-quality product.
Easy to use. This is a big one. Operating Apple VoiceOver or Android TalkBack gestures on your QWERTY keyboard is by no means intuitive. You need to remember tons of shortcuts, and there is not a lot of room for errors. In contrast, the Hable One is specifically designed to easily operate both VoiceOver and TalkBack gestures. The Hable navigation is simple to learn, easy to remember, and fast to work with. Besides the ease of the product itself, don’t forget to compare the difference in support. When you buy a Bluetooth keyboard, 99% of the time it does not come with a lot of support for operating your VoiceOver or TalkBack. Whereas, with the Hable One, or any braille device for that matter, you always receive added support and resources to help you with these endeavors.
In conclusion, the higher price tag of the Hable One is based on the added value it brings over regular Bluetooth keyboards. It’s for you to decide what you are looking for. A Bluetooth keyboard should be considered when you are mainly looking to increase your typing speed, but only in specific situations. A Hable One is more suitable if you are looking for an all-in-one solution for operating your smartphone, that you can use in any situation.
What should you consider before buying an external keyboard?
Before buying any external keyboard, you should first make very clear what you are looking for. All solutions have different benefits and different pricing. We recommend starting with noting down what you need, then checking what is out there that works for you, and finally checking the costs. Here is a checklist you could use:
What is the main purpose of looking at a new keyboard?
To type faster?
To operate your VoiceOver of TalkBack better?
To be able to read in Braille?
A combination of the above?
Which phone will you be pairing the keyboard with? Should it be compatible with VoiceOver, TalkBack or both?
Where do you want to be able to use your keyboard?
Only at home
At home, work, and other places where you have desks or stands.
What size do you want the keyboard to be?
Able to fit in your pocket
Able to fit in a small bag
Size does not matter
Are you looking for an all-in-one solution, or are you happy to use your phone next to it?
What about durability? How long do you minimally want to work with the keyboard? How long should the battery life last? Do you care about the production area and sustainability of the product?
How much time do you want to put into learning to work with the keyboard?
What support do you get with your keyboard?
After you have answered all these questions you will have a good understanding of what keyboard suits your needs best. Now determine which budget you are willing to spend and check if there is a keyboard in the right price range suiting your needs. Finally, make sure you know which funds you are eligible for. This differs per country and per person, but there is a good likelihood that you can get most keyboards for free. Especially when you are using it for work or study-related endeavors.
The future of pricing
At Hable, we believe that making products affordable to everyone is also part of the accessibility of the product. Luckily, we are seeing a shift in the domain of assistive technology.
This change is mainly coming from startups. Take for example Be My Eyes: a Danish app released in 2015 which connects sighted volunteers from around the world with low vision users to help them with everyday tasks and is completely free to use. Their CCO, Alexander Hauerslev Jensen said: “I think I understand why assistive technology could cost a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s right.”
We also see that an increased number of companies are entering the domain of assistive technology. This will lead to more useful innovations, better assistive technology, and most likely reduce product prices.
Next to this, the western population is aging. With an aging population, there will also be an increased number of people with a visual impairment, since eye conditions are directly correlated with age. This can be another reason for costs to go down since a larger production scale leads to lower product costs. Which is now one of the drivers of higher costs for assistive technology.
An example of these advancements is the OrCam. In 2018 OrCam was the first company in the domain of assistive technology to be valued at 1 billion US dollars.
Based on this reasoning there is a good chance that costs of assistive technology will go down in the future. With Hable, we want to be part of this movement and we are continuously working on providing the best products for the lowest pricing.