Ways Apple Could Make iOS8's Braille Input Even Better

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Intro

As most of you know by now, iOS8 brought with it a huge feature: the ability to type in braille anywhere you can type on an on-screen keyboard. From your passcode, to passwords, to emails, to Spotlight searches, and everywhere else, a single twist of the rotor is all it takes to start typing braille. You can even use it on your Home Screen, to locate and open any app you have installed in seconds.

For a first release, this system is remarkably solid. Except for a few small bugs, it works well, it's reliable, and it has a lot of features one would not expect in such a new product. This isn't a post about why braille input needs to improve, and it's not a "call to arms" over any of the minor issues the current implementation has. Rather, it's me, seeing this incredible system and saying, "Wow, this is absolutely awesome! Now, if I could, how would I make it even better?"

Yes, much of the following is borrowed from the excellent and highly useful MBraille app. It is a mark of MBraille's dedicated, talented, and hard-working developer that so much of his work is, in my mind, capable of improving on what Apple has already done. I am not suggesting that Apple clone MBraille, just that parts of MBraille would improve an already solid system.

Deleting by Word

UPDATE: as of iOS8.3, Apple has introduced this feature. A two-finger swipe left will erase the text back to the last space or new line character. In contracted mode, it will take any not-yet-translated text with it, which is a bit annoying. The feature is here, though, and I'm loving it.

Currently, iOS only lets braille users delete by character, no doubt because that is how the basic iOS keyboard already works, and why would anyone need to delete whole words at once? In braille, especially in contracted mode, it's actually quite easy to make a mistake that you don't notice until later in the word, or until the entire word is written and back-translated. Even in uncontracted braille, you can easily be typing away, and only notice a mistake after you've typed a few more characters.

The ability to delete by word is common among the braille input apps and stand-alone braille notetakers I'm familiar with, and for good reason. Plus, Mac OS includes such a command (option-delete), and I use that keystroke all the time on my Mac. Adding this to iOS' braille input would be a big increase in efficiency.

Lock Orientation

The way braille input works right now, you can operate in one of two input modes. Tabletop Mode is where the device lies flat, its screen facing up; Away Mode is where the screen faces away from you, the device perpendicular to the floor. Most of the time, this system works fine, switching from one mode to the other depending on what you do. For instance, if you start with your device flat on a table but then pick it up and hold it against your body, it switches from Tabletop to Away mode immediately.

There are two problems here. First, the system is basing its orientation off where it is in relation to gravity (for most of us, that means the floor you're standing on). If you were to try to use braille input while leaning back in a chair, you could easily be angled in such a way that your device keeps switching orientations. It might be flat on your body, but your body might be at a forty-five-degree angle to the floor.

Second, everyone types differently. If you find that you can't type as well using the Away Mode configuration no matter which mode you're in, you currently have no choice but to keep your device in Tabletop Mode as long as you are typing. Put another way, if you simply prefer one layout over the other, you have no way of always using the one you like.

Dot Swapping

I'll be up front about this one: I've never been able to wrap my head around swapping dots. To me, the index fingers are dots 1 and 4, the middles are 2 and 5, and the rings are 3 and 6. No matter where my fingers are, that's how I think as I type braille. For many users, though, this isn't the case. They prefer to be able to swap dots 1 and 3, and 4 and 6, effectively flipping the braille cell upside down. In this configuration, people often find it easier to type, and having the option to do this would be a good way to make braille input simpler to use. Both of the popular braille apps I've used have had this as a feature, and I recall MBraille's developer being asked by many users to put it in after the initial release hit the market.

Small Bugs and Changes

Earlier, I said that braille input is very solid for an initial release, and it certainly is. Still, there are a few problems and missing features that are holding it back. If these were fixed, the basics of typing braille in iOS would be nailed down, and Apple could concentrate on expanding the system with new features.

Contracted Braille Entry

Contracted braille entry needs a bit of interface work. There is no character echo, so those who want to hear the dots they are typing cannot do so. Instead, VoiceOver only speaks the word after it detects a space or new line command, meaning that if you made a mistake at the start of a word, you won't know about it until the end. Yes, a two-finger flick down will expand your contracted braille without needing to type a space, but this is little better--the translation is entered into the edit field as soon as you perform the gesture, so you'll need to correct any mistakes anyway.

As mentioned, the two-finger flick left will delete the last translated word. If I type "the test", but don't hit a space after "test" so the word remains untranslated, a two-finger swipe left will erase both "the" and my untranslated "test". I'd much prefer the two-finger swipe left to take out my untranslated text only, so I wouldn't have to type in the previous word all over again.

"Perkins Mode" on the iPhone 6

I feel that support for what I think of as "Perkins Mode"--Tabletop Mode, but where you can type with all six fingers laid next to each other, like on a Perkins brailler--should be extended. Currently, this (really amazing) typing experience is available for the iPhone 6 Plus, iPad Mini, and full-sized iPad. I've tried putting my fingers in the Perkins configuration on an iPhone 6, though, and I found I could do so quite easily. If nothing else, having an option in VoiceOver's braille settings to enable or disable this feature on the iPhone 6 would be very helpful. Those with larger hands who don't like the layout could turn it off, and those who prefer it could use it.

Speaking of this Perkins Mode: a flick to the right while your hands are in this layout is awkward. A different command, maybe some kind of flick up or down, feels much more comfortable to me for entering a space or new line. There isn't room for a real spacebar, and interpreting that would be impossible on smaller screens, so a separate gesture for entering a space is the next best thing. With my hands flat, though, the current gesture just doesn't feel like it flows as I type.

Key Echo Specifically for Braille Input

As things stand now, the typing feedback setting for software keyboards will affect both the regular on-screen keyboard as well as braille. While this makes sense to someone who does not use braille input much, it would actually be much better if there were a separate setting for braille input.

As you type using a regular onscreen keyboard, you touch the character you want to enter before you type that character. You are therefore always aware of what you are typing, and many users find that character echo becomes useful only in certain typing modes. In braille, though, some people like to have each dot combination spoken, while others rely on word echo or no echo at all. The problem is that the same person might need character echo while using the on-screen keyboard, but would much prefer to hear only clicks or silence while typing in braille. The two input methods are different enough that it would make sense to set their typing feedback options independently.

Speaking of clicks, braille input currently has no sound at all as you type. It would be reassuring to hear a click every time you enter a character, space, or new line, just like you do with other on-screen keyboards. I can't explain why, but I feel like this just makes me faster as I type; MBraille had a very different sound for typing when it first came out, and it seemed to me that my speed using that sound was slower than what I could manage using the regular key clicks, introduced in a later update. Perhaps it's all in my head, but there's something about the audible feedback that really helps.

Conclusion

As I said, I absolutely love iOS8's braille screen input feature, especially the improvements made starting in iOS8.3. It isn't a stretch to say that BSI has changed the way I use my iPhone. The above thoughts are things I've noticed while using it (which I do every day), and observations made by people I talk to on email lists and other places. As stated earlier, I'm not saying the current system is bad, and I'm not calling on Apple to make changes "or else". I'm just saying to Apple: "this feature is awesome, it truly is. Now, here are a few ways to make it even awesomer!" Sound off in the comments: what do you think of iOS8's braille input feature? How would you make it better? What problems have you run into that I missed? Have you tried it, but can't see what the big deal is? Love it and think it's perfect? Let me know!

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18 Comments

Crashing

when I first got iOS 8, Braille worked great. But a few months ago it started crashing voiceover every time orientation was changed. So you have to get the phone in the orientation you want, start typing, then get out of Braille without moving your phone or shifting it in the slightest. This has turned Braille input from something I used all the time to an unnecessarily difficult option I almost never use anymore

I've said it before, but it bears repeating

I am frankly of the opinion and hope that will become a third-party keyboard. Yes, it is nice to have a built-in braille keyboard for the iOS, but it just feels clunky. I am not at all saying it won't get better, but I am used to MBraille now with it's gestures, and the bugs have almost all been worked out of it. For me, personally, I would rather see a braille keyboard as a third-party keyboard than use the iOS braille. Another reason is, I suppose, because I paid money to purchase MBraille, and I still use it almost exclusively for braille input. Just my two cents.

Swipe right gesture not being recognized is a real bear.

I too am very excited about the integrated Braille input, in fact, this was probably one of the biggest reasons compelling me to upgrade to iOS8. That said, the issue with flick right not always being recognized has caused me to lose so much in terms of efficiency that I hardly use the braille input option. The other problem is that braille input poses an interesting problem in the Messages app: I like the raise to speak option, but the sensor is triggered whenever I enter braille. Ideally, the proximity sensor would become disabled when braille input is selected. All that said, I'm super glad Apple has implemented braille input natively although like sockhopsinger, I'd love to see MBraille eventually offered as a 3RD party keyboard.

I agree with every word!

Hi! What a great blog entry and I totally agree with every word. The introduction of braille screen input has totally revolutionised the way I use my phone. To be able to just grab the phone, shoot off a text or a tweet in seconds without the need for a pocket keyboard is great. I loved both Braille Touch and MBraille but the need to copy and paste did slow things down somewhat and even if you used dot commands it still wasn't as fast as just being able to type right into a text edit field and hit send. For me one of the amazing things is being able to enter a password in Braille. I can search for that new app anywhere and if I rebooted my phone so I can't buy it with touch just put in my password and I'm off.

I did have a major bug using BSI recently, for some reason it started to majorly play up while writing texts but this latest update seems to have fixed things so yay to that! The things I'd most like to see are a reliable space flick, echo while typing contracted braille and most of all the ability to delete by word, I really do miss that!

I agree with a ot here

Hi! Although I do not use IOS 8's braille screen input all the time, I definitely like it, and I agree that a lot of the improvements suggested above would be well worth having. I have not yet tested tabletop mode in IOS's new braille screen input yet, as I am uncertain how to place my fingers for that mode, but if the Perkins mode available for the iPhone 6 Plus and the iPad could somehow be a choice on the iPhone 6 that would definitely be a bonus, as it would be easier to know the right position for my fingers in that mode. I also agree that deleting by word would be a good idea, either in contracted or uncontracted braille. The improvement I'm personally most in favour of is separate typing echo options for braille screen input and standard onscreen keyboard input: when using the standard onscreen keyboard, I use the touch-typing mode, and word echo suits me fine for that, but when using braille screen input I would definitely prefer character echo, especially for passwords, as I tried brailling one in recently and got it wrong without knowing exactly where my mistake was, plus having to go into Settings to change typing echo just because I want to use braille screen input would slow things down a bit. If Apple bring in any of the improvements I particularly want, or which others have mentioned here, that'll be great, but even if they don't I will still use braille screen input: given that it's a brand-new feature, it's proved to be a good one, and here's hoping that Apple will make it even better in the future, whether they introduce all the improvements suggested here or not!

Tap and hold

First off, another article very well-written and unbiased! :D
I definitely agree with you on all of those points, Alex. I think, though, that if they didn't introduce a delete-by-word command, we should at least be given the option to, say, touch and hold or something in order to delete multiple characters, then remove your finger once you're done. I say this because sometimes, you may not necessarily need to delete the full word. For example, if you meant to type "this" instead of "the", you would only need to delete the two. But if you have a bigger word, having a gesture that will just delete more than one character by holding a finger down or something would help.
I really hope this makes sense!!!

I like the grill and put Moto lot!

I like the braille input mode too. My biggest problem is that no matter where I put it on the rotor, it always shows up between characters in words. This makes it hard to edit the text once it's done being typed in, because if I'm looking down to save my word, find a mistake, and need to edit my character, I've got to flip through the rotor… And Braille mode pops up… And messes with the orientation and so on.sometimes, I don't realize that it's in brown mode… And end up inserting a bunch of spaces where I don't mean to. Other than that, I really do like it!

My $0.02 about Braille

I too was very excited about Braille screen input on iOS 8 And love that apple clearly put a lot of time and effort into making it work as well as it does. I even ended up buying a new iPad mini because Braille input coupled with the Microsoft office suite and semi frequent use of a Braille display made it a much more valuable tool in my arsenal and 64 gb was just not cutting the mustard. I find that I mostly use braille on my iPad, and almost never on my iPhone, simply because I am more comfortable with the stock keyboard on the iPhone and type very slowly on the iPad. I think my biggest problems with Braille right now are that it doesn't obey the order of roter elements and the flick right for space gesture, which I find extremely cumbersome and inefficient. all in all though it is a very good start and I think apple should be commended.

I use braille almost exclusivly

Hello, I use braille almost all the time now. I used to be a very heavy fleksy user but not so much any more sense I have no luck with it what so ever.
Its become my favorite way to tye from entering passwords, to emails, and texts which I type a lot of.
I was wondering though for those of you that use braille to put in usernames/passwords, do you sometimes find that its like you never typed in the field at all? examples of this are like when you type into a password field and have a go or submit button at the bottom of the screen after you take out out of braille mode, and that button acts like you never inputed characters into the edit field. its like you have to input a character using the normal keyboard before it realizes you actually put text in even though it toes seem to input the text using braille?
Just my thoughts, but I totally love braille input.

I agree

I agree. I love the idea behind the braille keyboard, but I use MBraille for almost any typing on my devices. Why?
Because I've used MBraille since day 1 it came out, and I find it faster to type on. When I use contractions in IOS 8 it is not all that fast, so therefor I use uncontracted braille for using the buildin keyboard. However if I type a little too fast the spaces is not placed correctly. So I have to enter a word in braille, then take a short break and thet do my space. To me that is not the best way of typing braille for me.
Others may love it more than I do, but I certainly love that Apple managed to make a great buildin keyboard. What I miss the most is the way MBraille previews text. For me it is extremely hard to edit text when I have to change he rotor every time I need to move a few words forwards or backwards. But again, that might be me beeing used to MBraille's way of handling edits. :-)

Can someone tell me

Can someone tel me how to type an e-mail address with braille? I have no luck. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Typing Email Addresses

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

I'm assuming you have UEB enabled. Simply use dot 4, dot 1 for the at sign, and a dropped d for the period. An underscore is 4 6, 3 6.

Would love to hit the send button from within Braille mode

The Braille method is good. Would love to be able to hit the send button straightaway while using the Braille input. This applies to all the messaging apps including what sap, messaging, Facebook google etc. it should not be very difficult to implement as a gesture could be assigned for this purpose.

Ttyping six dots at thhe same time

How can I do it? In Brazilian Portuguese the 123 456 dots together form a very used character. I can type up to five pioints at the same time but can niot manage to get the six together.
Using iphone 6.

Here's How

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Place a few fingers on the screen. Lift some, then place others to touch all the dots. So long as at least one finger is on the screen the whole time, the character won't be registered. So, you might put your fingers down to touch dots 1 2 3 4 5, lift 4 and 5, touch 6, then lift the four fingers you have on the screen. Any combination will do it, so experiment to see what is most comfortable for you.

Thanks for that tip and other ideas!

Thanks for the tip in the post just before mine. I tend to use Braille Screen Input in six-dot mode, where I don't need to braille all six dots at once in English, but in French one of the accented letters, e acute, is done with all six dots. Until now, if I've wanted to type anything in French containing a word using that accented letter, I have had to go back to touch typing on the standard IOS keyboard, but from now on I will use the method described above to do all six dots in Braille Screen Input. Another suggested improvement above would definitely be a good one, namely some kind of gesture to delete several letters in a quicker way than flicking a finger to the left as many times as necessary. I still don't use Braille Screen Input all the time, but it's definitely a good new feature, and I'm so glad it's available in IOS 8 for anyone who wants it.

In fact as the character is

In fact as the character is entered only when the screen has no fingers, one thing I am doing now is I am touchhing dots one after the other in quick sucession making sure I lift a finger only when the next is touching the screen and this seen to be more acurate in the sense that if I put the dot 4 and after another finger in the dot 5 position it in my opinion tends to be more precise than if I put the two fingers together at the same time.
I also had the same problem with the e acute......

Now it really is getting good.

Marlon