Monday, December 28, 2009

Final thoughts on the iBill by Orbit Research

I must have been a really nice boy this year, because Santa was really good to me. I got a portable USB hard drive and the latest Jimmy Buffett CD, and I wanted both of these, but he also made sure I got one thing I really wanted…the iBill, the new talking banknote identifier by Orbit Research.

Now that I have the true iBill, I can compare it with the pre-production unit I had, and also make comparisons with what the manufacturer promised on the
Official iBill web page.

The very first thing I checked out was the battery compartment door. I had been told about the existence of this problem by the company and, as they promised, had problems trying to get the darn thing open. As a matter of fact, I never got the door open on the review unit. I was told that if I wanted to open it, they could give me assistance, but I decided that I’d pass and see how the next gen model developed.

Well, all I can say is that they’ve got this fixed very nicely. That door is a problem no longer. With a simple intentional push, I can easily get to the single AAA battery contained inside the iBill.

Opening that door also let me see how well they’ve got the door secured, too. The user’s manual said that this door was secured with rubber strings so that it didn’t accidently separate from the unit and get misplaced. That door just hangs in place and lets you do your work with the battery. Nice.

And, speaking of the user’s manual, I hadn’t thought about how the company gets this to the user. It comes on a mini-CD, packaged inside a protective, plastic sleeve. The mini-CD has five items on it. There are two folders, one contains the audio version of the user’s manual, and the other is a folder of pictures of the product, which has 8 files inside. The remaining items are the iBill Quick Start Guide text document, and the iBill User’s Manual as both a pdf and text document. Additionally, there are large print copies of the two documents in the iBill’s package as well. All of these versions are promised to the user by Orbit Research.

Note: The file inside the first folder with the audio version of the user’s manual is a file extension .CDP and I was initially puzzled why this file type, which I’ve not heard of previously, wouldn’t play in my computer’s CD/DVD drive. After reading up on the file extension, it is related to something called the Sony CD Architect Project. (I should’ve been tipped off by the mini-disc, a Sony brainchild.) Anyhow, after reading up on the file extension online, I found that if I just put the minidisk into a regular CD player, it would play.

With all that said, the audio version of the manual is done very well, presented in a professionl manner by a female reader.

So, what else do I have to add to my initial review of the iBill? Nothing. My initial review posted just prior to this is on target with the exception of what I note here. They fixed what they said they would do and offer everything they promise in the multi-item list on the company web page. Great job, Orbit Research.

And, thanks, Santa!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review of the iBill talking banknote identifier

I previously posted the news announcing the introduction of the iBill electronic banknote identifier, and now, I offer my review of this latest piece of assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired.

I’ll admit that when I first read that
Orbit Research
was offering this tool at size, weight, speed, and price thresholds that I have never heard of previously, I was skeptical. I thought to myself that this must be a bit of exaggeration on some part. Surely, this device couldn’t do everything they advertise and they can still sell the unit for only $99.

Well, the people at Orbit Research were right.

If you want to listen to my podcast of the review and hear a demonstration of the iBill in action, its on

I’ll boil the iBill down to a few words: Compact, lightweight, fast, accurate, easy to use, and, most importantly, in the realm of assistive technology, affordable.

The iBill is small enough to carry in your pocket. Measuring 3 inches wide (just wide enough to insert the end of a bill) by 1.6 inches long, and less than ¾ of an inch thick, it fits easily in your pocket or purse among your keys and USB jump drives. When you hold it, the iBill fits handily in your palm.

And, being lightweight is another one of its feature facets. At just 1.5 ounces, you hardly even realize the iBill is present until you need it.

The iBill has only two buttons on it to operate the unit and change between the five output settings, the iBill is very simple to use. It comes with both a quick start guide and a user’s manual, both of which are well written with clearly defined directions, and easily explaining the unit’s design and operation.

I tried the iBill with bills in denominations or $1, 5, 10, and 20. I’ll give the iBill the benefit of the doubt and figure it will do as well on the $2, 50, and 100 denominations that I didn’t use.

I intentionally tried to test the limits of the iBill. I first inserted each bill correctly, making sure the corners and edges were smooth and flat. It correctly identified each bill I gave it in about one second. The iBill literature claims a recognition speed of one second. Check.

I tried to see if the product would give incorrect readings if the bills had folded or wrinkled corners. When it couldn’t identify a bill, it beeped to let me know it was trying to figure it out, but after about 3-5 seconds, it gave me an “Error” message. It never misidentified a bill. If it couldn’t recognize a bill, it announced, “Error.” The iBill brochure says it is 99.9% accurate. Check.

The output settings on the iBill include low, medium and loud spoken audio, a vibration mode, and a tone mode. The spoken audio modes were very acceptable for different settings and announced clear, easy to understand spoken denominations in a female voice.

The tone mode worked very well to identify the bills, too. There is a low tone in sequences of 1, 2, and 3, tones for $1, 2, and 5 bills, and a high tone in that same sequence for $10, 20, and 50 bills, all respectively, as well as a low-high, low-high sequence for $100.

However, Where I see this as a powerful tool, besides as a quality bill identifier for those of us who are totally blind, is as an equally great product for anybody who is deafblind. With the vibration mode, there are sequences of short or long pulses in identical sequences of the tone mode to quickly identify the different denominations. There’s even a very long pulse for an error message.

The iBill I tested was a pre-production review unit. I was told that there was a design change to the battery compartment cover, as the pre-production model’s cover was difficult to open. I didn’t need to change the battery, as they had a brand new one installed, but was curious to see how difficult it would be to open. After trying several times, I never did get it open, so I hope the new model is easier to open.

I also demonstrated this product to several visually impaired students and professional staff members who work with these students. With a brief introduction, all but one of the students was able to quickly make the iBill work. The one who had the most difficulty was the only one who was totally blind. All were impressed with the design speed, and accuracy of the iBill.

The only constructive feedback anybody offered was a suggestion that there might be an inset on one of the rear corners where a key ring might be attached. This was suggested as possibly aiding in orienting the user to the iBill. There were no complaints about how the iBill operated.

To conclude, let me compare the iBill to previous models of similar products. In the past, I’ve handled a bill identifier that was probably three times the size of the iBill and several times the weight. That device was bulky and not easily carried in one’s pockets. Additionally, the lowest price I’ve ever seen for one of those units was $189. On those three fronts the iBill charges to the front of the pack, and it does so with a hard to beat accuracy rate and identification speeds faster than the KNFB Reader Mobile. For giving independence to people who are blind and visually impaired, this is a product that should find its way to one’s toolbox of assistive technology.

If you're interested in this product, the first shipments of the iBill are going out next week, just in time for Christmas. Those who have already contacted the company are being processed first. There will also be an online order form on the company's web site in the near future, so that you can order the product directly. I've told Santa to grab me one and even he had to leave his name and phone number. Even jolly old Saint Nick has to wait to get one of these.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Amazon working on Kindle accessible for blind and visually impaired

Well, its finally happening.

Amazon is working to make an
accessible Kindle book reader
for blind users. Its not happening overnight, but is projected to be out by summer 2010.

This is indeed good news. Those of us in the blind community have seen the potential that was there ever since Amazon announced text-to-speech capabilities in the latest version of this affordable, digital book reader. Granted, there were no usable menus which were being read and the web interface wasn’t accessible, but the books could be made to play for blind users with some sighted assistance.

Having accessibility built-in seems to be a new concept and it shook up the Author’s Guild to think that there might be ways of reading their works in this fashion without them getting a slice of revenue for audio formats of their book. When they protested, Amazon backed off and allowed publishers to say whether their works can be played on the current text-to-speech solution, further crippling possible access by blind users.

However, this is all set to change as what Amazon is working on is more of a functioning screen reader that wil handle menus and such, giving unprecedented access to blind users on the Kindle.

This product should serve Amazon well, because there was a recent announcement where two colleges said they would not be able to use the Kindle as a platform for digital textbooks, because the current Kindle was inaccessible to blind and visually impaired students. The colleges paired with the
National Federation of the Blind
To say that this inaccessibility discriminated against these students by not allowing them access to course material. This would be a big hurdle for Amazon to overcome and allow a broader rollout as an accessible digital textbook reader at college campuses across America.

I’m anxious to see what grows from this project and am subscribed to their email list for updates. If you’d also like to stay informed on progress on this front, sign up by email at

I don’t know if it will happen, but I’ve requested a review unit of the accessible Kindle. If I can get one, I’ll share my thoughts here on Access Ability. Stay tuned.