As smartphones become increasingly a part of more disabled people’s lives, Ian Macrae takes a look at a new mini keyboard which claims to make running them easier.
As disabled people we may have to get used to twisting ourselves in to odd shapes in order to do things we need to do in our own particular way. So although the Apple iPhone has a touch screen, which is perfectly usable without the need to see it, my desire to peer at it while inputting text causes me to want to hold the handset close to my face. I also like to have the speaker near my ear instead of doing the sensible thing and plugging in headphones. Lately this has caused me some problems with my right upper arm and shoulder.
As a Braillist I have the alternative of being able to use my Brailliant 32 Braille display and keyboard because Apple’s Voiceover access solution which is common to all their products has the ability to connect the display via blue tooth and use it to write texts, tweets and emails in Braille which is then turned into text on the apple device. Under some circumstances, this is my favourite way of doing things not least because I find the experience of using Braille with a mainstream device a very liberating thing. But the Braille display isn’t always with me and is about three times the size of the phone it drives which rather defeats the advantage of portability which comes with the iPhone. And what about those people who either don’t know Braille or don’t have the two grand or so it costs to get a display like this?
So recently I was very interested to hear about a new mini keyboard which has been produced in Korea by Mobience. Their RiVo keyboard is almost exactly the size of a credit card though somewhat thicker. It has a conventional telephone-style twelve key pad at its centre and this is flanked by two rows of four buttons down either side. The left row, intuitively enough designated L1 to 4 and the right, similarly R1 to 4.
This isn’t the place to go through the function of each button in detail. Anyone interested can look at the user guide at mobience.com/RiVo
As an overview: it is possible to navigate around screens, activate apps and other controls, play and control media and input text all via this one little blue tooth hand-held device. In addition to the IOS version I’ve used, there’s also one for Android for those who prefer that platform.
So how does it perform? As far as navigation goes, I think it is difficult to fault. I’ve been able to move easily around the home screen on my iPhone 5, get into and move around apps very successfully. One of the things I use my phone for a lot is reading text via Apple’s own iBooks app or the amazon Kindle one and spoken to me by voiceover. Reading has been as easy and comfortable using RiVo as it is using the gestures on the touch screen. But, using the keypad means the iPhone stays safely and securely in a pocket. This is an important point as many blind and partially sighted people feel uneasy, even perhaps vulnerable waving an expensive and desirable piece of kit around in public places.
The one slight downside here is that you obviously have to go through each icon or control on the screen one by one and this is inevitably a little slower than identifying them on the screen with a skim of one finger, but that’s a price many would be prepared to pay.
Listening to and controlling music is similarly satisfyingly easy.
It’s on the text inputting side that we perhaps run into slightly bigger drawbacks. Those of us who’ve got familiar with and used to the more or less instant response of the onscreen Qwerty iPhone keyboard might baulk at taking what feels like a step back in time. Because obviously, using a twelve key phone pad means a return to the method of texting which we all got used to on our old Nokia handsets. But there is a twist here. It’s possible to toggle the keypad between alphabetic lay-out and input and what the manufacturers call “Small Qwerty”. But the fact remains that it’s a bit of a backward learning curve and will probably take me some time to get back up to speed with this method of text entry.
Two small disappointments to finish: First there are no audio cues to let you know when the unit turns on or goes into standby, and the LEDs which indicate these states are very small and shine very briefly. And when entering some of the functions, you don’t receive any spoken confirmation from Voiceover. The manufacturers tell me these are both things they will incorporate in later models.
But this little gadget will definitely change the way I work with my iPhone, particularly when on the move. It’s very simple, for example, for me to find, open and consult my bus timetable app on the street without taking the iPhone out of my pocket. And my right arm is feeling better already.