Monthly Archives: December 2019

My thoughts on how productivity is way more portable than in the past, but how annoyingly some non-visual features only appear on products with larger screens

Posted on December 13, 2019

Johan Sebastian Bach probably wished he’d had a better way to work on his “Musikalisches Opfer”, “A Musical Offering” when he traveled back home to Leipzig from visiting King Frederick the great of Prussia  near Berlin in 1747. Ok, he probably instead really wished for something faster and more comfortable than a horse-drawn carriage.

I still remember being in high school, when I had a 30 minute ride between school and home, each way; wanting a portable typewriter that ran on batteries; all the homework I could have done.

In 1987, Deane Blazie and his company, Blazie Engineering, came out with the Braille ’n Speak, very awesome for its time. David Holladay told me there was nothing like it in the sighted world at that time. He considered buying one for his own use, even though he is sighted.

The original version was a braille note taker, had 192K of memory that could be separated into 30 separate files. It was kind of that portable typewriter I wanted; it had  actually already been out when I was a senior in high school, I just didn’t know about it until a month before   I started college.. The Braille ‘n Speak was 8 by 4 by 1/2 inches and was way easier to carry around than the Perkins braille writer which I still used in my dorm room, just not loudly in my classes.

People everywhere got excited when laptops became viable, affordable, and light weight enough to not break the average back, though the most portable models even today are still definitely breaking wallets. Even the lightest of laptops back then still had rather large footprints, until the netbooks came out in the late early two thousands. People liked netbooks because they were easy to carry, and although not very powerful were good for writing projects and web browsing.

Back in the blind community, Levelstar came out with both the Icon, and the Braille Plus, which were kind of the Braille ‘n Speaks of their time in 2007. The Icon was 3 by 5 by 1 inches, the Braille Plus slightly wider. They both ran linux,, excited many people, and probably would have gone much farther if it weren’t for the industry-wide disruptive changes brought by Apple and their iOS devices. Yes, they also killed the netbook market.

When the first iPads came out, people thought they were just personal screens to consume content on; but now, ten years later, as iPads continue to get more powerful, many people see with significant success, how much work they can do on them while on the run; just ask  Federico Viticci. You can even get very nice iPad cases with keyboards built-in so that they in some ways almost function like laptops, though probably a netbook would be more accurate. The problem is, most people are photon dependent, and they can’t seem to get anything done without a large flashy screen to look at.

I often hear people talk about how much they can get done with their iPads, and that’s great, but my annoyance is that this means the majority also think that the iPhone is useless as a productivity tool. This means: I can’t press command-tab to move between open apps on my iPhone, or get a list of keyboard shortcuts offered by an iOS app. Even though both of these are completely available using the exact same Bluetooth keyboard on  iPads. I can’t think of any technical reason why the same keyboard-focused productivity features used on iPads every day can’t also work on iPhones.

Since 2010 I still carry a foldable Bluetooth keyboard along with my iPhone, and since 2014 braille screen input, more often called BSI has also been available. This means that blind users have been able to be just as productive as their sighted counterparts with their larger iPad screens. If I were in college writing papers today, I could probably do 95% of them on my iPhone only needing my MacBook for finishing touches. If I were sighted, I’d probably want larger screens too, but I hopefully would still appreciate that small screens can also be just as effective.

It seems that many products only offer their high-end features on their larger screened devices. This can be interpreted by some as kind of a screen tax. “I, who can’t use a screen am forced to pay more money for a larger screen that I can’t benefit from, just to get a quad core CPU instead of two cores, etc.” “We only make phones with huge screens and no home button, because that’s what everyone wants.”  When individuals or companies come up with some new awesome product, I just wish they would not assume that everyone thinks the same ways they do.

I still smile when I remember how my friend Eric Knapp explained how confused people looked when they saw me typing on my keyboard but couldn’t see any screen or device; my iPhone was under the table attached to my belt. I wear bone conduction headphones in public, so VoiceOver speaks to me through them just fine. If the iPhone got those cool keyboard shortcuts on the iPad already mentioned above, I would consider that a nice step towards improvements.

There is a very cool app for both iOS and Android called Voice Dream Reader, it can read all kinds of file formats, and to some degree, makes digital text into a kind of audio book. I use it every day. I also thought how amazing it would be if I could have Voice Dream Reader on my Apple watch, the smallest e-book reader ever. Alas, the Apple watch can only play audio through Bluetooth headphones and speakers. Yes, I totally get how bad music would sound through the watch’s very small speaker, but for reading a book; especially if I’m just laying in bed, it seems like another opportunity to think outside the box not taken. Voice Dream Reader is on my watch now, but requiring a Bluetooth audio device makes it inconvenient for me to use.

If I were complaining just to complain, I could have succeeded by babbling to myself in an echo chamber. I wrote this to hopefully show mobile productivity from a different angle, hoping a reader or two might take the next opportunity they have to think or better yet just step outside the box and include more users, regardless of what screen preferences they might have.

My journey to the cool Amazon “Show and Tell” feature discovering along the way that the Echos Show 5 and 8 won’t ever be able to support it.

Posted Tuesday, December 3, 2019
One of the bigger challenges for a blind person is quickly identifying things that aren’t physically unique or labeled in braille. This is one of the frustrations technology has helped in a big way.

The first device that made a significant breakthrough in this area, was the I.D. Mate. A talking barcode reader with a built-in database of products. It was very cool, very efficient and also very expensive; still costs $1299 today. I considered buying one in the fall of 2007, but now am happy I didn’t.

I did however, in late 2009, buy a $300 USB barcode reader and attach it to a netbook which I already owned and had been using. Still expensive, but way less than the I.d. Mate. It also meant I had to keep the netbook on top of the microwave and plugged in. It did work though, was faster than more modern solutions still today, but it was also cumbersome and I finally gave up on it.

There are several nice apps, like Seeing AI,  for either or both iOS and Android that can identify barcodes today. The problem is the APIs assume that the barcode can be visually aligned in the camera view. The app developers have offered beeps to help the blind user do this, but it’s still not as efficient as a dedicated scanner. Smartphones are way more mobile than my old USB barcode scanner attached to my netbook though, so it’s still somewhat of an improvement.

The only annoyance for me in using a smartphone is placing round containers on the counter and then them rolling around; even holding them with one hand, I wished that I could have both hands free to position the item I was identifying.

Enter the Echo Show from Amazon. When the first generation Echo Show was announced with it’s flashy screen so you could watch videos in the kitchen I thought that was the most useless thing ever for a blind person; but then Amazon announced the “Show and Tell” feature in their September 2019 release. I was interested, and decided to go for it.

The Echo Show 5, their most recently announced version seemed the best for me. It was small and cheap, too cheap. I got it and then found it didn’t support Show and Tell. Amazon still says the feature is supported by Echo Show, first and second generation. The Echo Show 5 doesn’t have generation anywhere in its name, but I figure it’s new why wouldn’t it support show and tell. I then found it can’t, because its camera is only 1 mega pixel; I’m still wondering why anyone would want a camera that anemic. Pretty bad if i, totally blind knows 1 megapixel is that bad.

The problem is though, that it really  is that bad, it means that a blind person, who doesn’t need a screen at all can’t buy the least expensive visual models, grumble. This also excludes the new Echo Show 8, still only 1 megapixel camera, frown. The Echo Show  first generation is the best way to go. It’s around $100 for as long as it’s still available, the second generation is $230. More than twice the price, with very little benefit if you can’t see it.

It’s been setup in my kitchen for almost two months now, on top of the microwave, but still smaller than my old netbook. I find identifying food faster and do find having both hands to hold items as convenient as I had imagined. Its database is somewhat limited, but still not bad. I’m guessing it will grow over time. Some times if it can’t identify something exactly, it will read some of the text it can see which can be just as successful in my opinion.

turning on VoiceView, Amazon’s screen reader is easy, and adds some nice capabilities to the Show, and VoiceView gestures are very similar to those in VoiceOver on Apple’s iOS. The Echo Show, first generation, is definitely worth it, even if you’re totally blind and can’t see the screen. The Show and tell feature is more convenient than scanning barcodes with a smartphone, and it will be able to use the “cook to scan” technology if you ever decide to get the new Amazon smart oven in the future.

Yes, I later realized I could put the phone on the counter face down, and then have both hands to position items to be identified, but am still glad I got the Echo Show. It is always ready to identify things for me, even if my phone is in another room, or doing something else.