Freedom Scientific and the new USB Human Interface Driver Braille Standard

Introduction

You may have read recently about a new universal standard for Braille displays adopted by the USB Implementers Forum. This is an industry body comprising manufacturers and software developers who wish to move the USB specification forward. Participants include Microsoft, Apple and Google among many others.

Freedom Scientific has been a part of the process that has led to the adoption of this standard. While we’re not yet able to give you all the answers to questions our customers have been asking about what this standard means for your Freedom Scientific product, we’re happy to bring you up to speed with developments and our thinking.

What is the new standard?

The new standard agreed by the USB Implementers Forum creates a specification which Braille display manufacturers and operating system developers can adopt, by which Braille displays are Human Interface Driver (HID) compliant. This means that, just like a keyboard or a mouse, when you plug your Braille display into a computer, the operating system will recognize that you’ve connected a Braille display.

The Braille HID specification has prescribed keycodes for keys found on all Braille displays in the same way that the QWERTY HID specification has standard codes for alphanumeric and navigation keys. Each display manufacturer can also assign custom codes for keys found only on their displays.

In this raw mode, it’s up to screen readers to map between what a key is and what it does, though for standard keys, this mapping will be the same for all displays.

For the Braille HID standard to work, two things need to be true. The device needs to identify itself as a Braille display based on the new standard, and operating systems must support the new standard by including a compatible driver.

What does this mean for Freedom Scientific?

Freedom Scientific has an interest in this topic in two respects. We manufacture Braille display hardware, and we develop software that works with many Braille devices in addition to our own.

We appreciate that there is interest in both whether our Focus displays will be compatible with the new HID driver, and whether JAWS will be compatible with HID displays.

Will Focus Blue displays be HID-compatible?

Yes. It is our intension to make at least our current generation of displays HID-compatible. This will involve an update to the firmware for the displays. At this time, we are unable to estimate when such an update will be available, but it is not imminent. Remember, it will also take some time for operating system manufacturers to include support for HID-compatible displays.

It is a complex task, because we are also committed to ensuring that our hardware works with all existing operating systems currently supported by our displays, including operating systems that may not receive an update incorporating support for this new standard.

We do, however, absolutely appreciate the value of, for example, being able to connect a Focus Blue display to a PC running Narrator during Windows set-up, before it’s possible to install JAWS.

Will JAWS support HID-compatible displays?

Yes. Ultimately, we expect that you will be able to connect any HID-compatible Braille display to JAWS and get Braille.

It is possible that this support will be rolled out as an alternative to, rather than a replacement for, our current secure Braille initiative, similar to the way you can choose to use a SAPI text-to-speech engine that is not quite as responsive as the voices that have been optimized specifically for JAWS. Long-term Braille customers will know that some years ago, we entered into partnerships with Braille display manufacturers to significantly improve the quality of Braille support in JAWS. As part of that partnership, once a driver has been signed by us, we take full responsibility for supporting your Braille experience with JAWS. It has improved the user experience a lot, and eliminated any ambiguity about who customers should call for support.

Because JAWS includes functions well beyond those specified in the new HID standard, we must continue to work through how we ensure maximum compatibility with a wide range of devices, while continuing to offer the most powerful, robust Braille support in the industry.

Conclusion

Much work lies ahead on implementation of the HID standard, and we’ll keep you posted. Rest assured that we’ll be moving forward seeking to facilitate user choice while ensuring we preserve the quality and reliability of Braille in JAWS you’ve come to expect.

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