A Review of the Humanware Communicator App by Scott Davert, Helen Keller National Center: Part 1

Photo of Scott Davert, standing on the sidewalk with his white cane and assistive technology

Guest blogger Scott Davert, M.A., VRT, (at left) is a Senior Instructor in the Adaptive Technology Department and Communications Learning Center at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC) in Sands Point, New York. Previously, Scott reviewed RoboBraille: Enhancing Document Accessibility, and vision enhancements and hearing and physical/motor enhancements for Apple’s iOS 5 release.

This week, Scott reviews the new Humanware Communicator app, which facilitates communication between deaf-blind and sighted and hearing users.

Face-To-Face Electronic Communication Options for Deaf-Blind Persons

For quite some time, deaf-blind users of iDevices have been able to use face-to-face communication with the public through the Notes app. Typically, this consists of an iDevice (iPod, iPad, or iPhone) paired with a braille display and a Bluetooth keyboard. The deaf-blind person can then type, using the braille input keys on his or her display, while the sighted and hearing person types on the Bluetooth keyboard. All text appears on both the braille display and the iDevice screen.

Now, however, there is another option on the market for this specific purpose. The Humanware Communicator is an app, available in the App Store for $99.99 (US), that facilitates this process with some added functionality.

(Note: You can learn more about the process of pairing a braille display with the iDevice, along with its various “quirks,” at Braille Commands for the iPhone at the AppleVis website. Note also that the pairing process for Humanware’s Brailliant BI line is simpler, since no authentication code is required to pair the devices.)

The Review Basics

This is a review of only the app itself – not the entire unit sold by Humanware, which includes an iDevice and Humanware braille display. The Communicator app was tested using an iPhone 4 (CDMA) running iOS 5.1.1 with a Refreshabraille 18 braille display and the latest model of the Apple wireless Bluetooth keyboard. An iPhone will most likely be the best device for this app, since it’s the only iDevice that vibrates.

The App Layout and Explanation

Moving from left to right, once you launch the app, you will have the following options: New Conversation, Greeting, Phrases, Archives, User Guide, and About:

  • New Conversation: Allows you to begin a new conversation.
  • Greeting: Allows you to change the greeting if you do not like the default one.
  • Phrases: Allows you to use a type of shorthand to enter a few letters, which will generate a designated string of text.
  • Archives: Allows you to save conversations.
  • User Guide: Teaches you how to use the app.
  • About: Contains links to both the Humanware and project collaborator l’Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille websites, along with the option to rate the app.

When you launch the app, your device will be placed in “landscape” mode. This will make it necessary to reorient the touch screen so that the Home button is on the right side of the device facing the person using the touch screen.

The “New Conversation” Option

When you launch the New Conversation feature, your device will make a ringing sound; if you have an iPhone, it will vibrate. By default, the following text appears on the screen: “Hi, I am deaf and blind. Use this unit to communicate with me. Click ‘OK’ if you understand.” When the sighted individual taps “OK,” the braille display will appear, along with a blinking cursor.

Now it’s your (the deaf-blind person’s) turn to type a message. You can enter a message in either contracted or uncontracted braille. This can be toggled with the command space by using “G” on the braille keyboard. Pressing “space” with “dot 8” on the keyboard of the braille display sends your message, which will appear with an onscreen keyboard located beneath it.

The sighted person then types out his or her message in response and taps “send” to send the message to you. The message will then pop up on your braille display. To avoid confusion, each time the deaf-blind individual types a message, a “Q:” will proceed the message, and each time the sighted individual replies, the message will be prefaced with an “A:”

When the deaf-blind person sends a message, the phone will vibrate. When the deaf-blind person is receiving a message, the word “typing” will appear on the braille display. When the word “typing” no longer appears, it is likely that the message is complete. You can verify by moving right with “space” and “dot 4” to locate a blinking cursor.

(Note: The New Conversation option cannot be used by another VoiceOver/blind/deaf-blind user, since the keyboard is designed to facilitate communication with sighted individuals.)

My Evaluation/Findings of the New Conversation Option

The following evaluation is based upon using the beta version of the New Conversation option for the past two months at my place of employment and in the community:

  • When typing, the touch screen is rather sluggish. In defense of Humanware, this is most likely caused by the fact that some intervention must take place so that VoiceOver does not intercept each key press.
  • Another common reaction, particularly among sighted persons who were less familiar with technology, was intimidation with the touch screen keyboard. With a non-touch-screen QWERTY keyboard, users communicated more easily, probably because they were accustomed to a regular keyboard.
  • The touch screen sluggishness appears not to exist when the sighted and hearing individual uses the Bluetooth keyboard instead of the onscreen one. This use of the Bluetooth keyboard also seems to make the communication process quicker and more fluid.
  • When the conversation is complete, the braille user can hit “space” with “L” to go to the top of the screen and the Back button. Moving to the right one icon will place you on the Save button, which saves the conversation.

In Part 2, Scott discusses the remaining app options, his conclusions about the Communicator app, and the biggest question of all: Is it worth $99? For more information, contact Scott at scott.davert@hknc.org.