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.
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.
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.
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!