(Note: This article first appeared in the BCAB Newsletter Autumn 2017)
BCAB members will no doubt be familiar with the British Wireless for the Blind Fund (BWBF), a charity which has been providing free wireless equipment on loan to qualifying blind and partially sighted people over the age of eight since 1928.
As radio listening habits have evolved, so has the equipment offered by BWBF. I can well remember, at the age of 10, getting a Roberts twin cassette recorder from them. In recent times, they have offered more advanced options, such as the Sonata range of Internet radios. They have also started offering radio equipment for sale.
Earlier this year (2017), BWBF launched Bumblebee, which is a suite of applications offering access to radio stations and other content of interest to the blind, pre-installed on a tablet. While I no longer qualify to receive BWBF equipment on loan, I was fortunate enough to win a Bumblebee in a competition that BWBF were running at Birmingham Sight Village earlier this year.
The Bumblebee applications ship on an Android tablet – a Samsung Galaxy Tab A – which has a 7-inch screen and 8GB of internal storage. It is Wi-Fi only. It also has a physical Home button and a single speaker on the bottom of the device. BWBF also provide a case, which is useful.
Options and content on the Bumblebee are displayed in lists of numbered items. The screen displays items in one vertical column of three or four items at a time. Visually, each item is shown as a band on the screen. These bands are alternately coloured for contrast, which are set to yellow and black by default in keeping with the name of the device.
On the Home screen, the bands represent the different applications that can be opened. They include radio stations, podcasts, books, Bumblebee VI, Online Community, and settings. You flick up and down to scroll the screen, though I have found this to be very sensitive.
In order to navigate between items, it is necessary to lift and touch your finger on different parts of the screen. Flicking left and right will not yield any results, nor will sliding your finger down the screen as you might when traditionally exploring a touchscreen device running iOS or Android.
In order to open an application, you first need to select it with a long press. You can lift your finger once the device announces “selected”. After a while, the unit will then invite you to enter the item you selected with another long press (note: no double-tap is necessary).
The layout on the Home screen with items being represented in alternately coloured bands is largely consistent throughout the Bumblebee experience. Once in an application, you will be presented with another numbered list. In radio stations, for example, it might present you with a list of genres. Long pressing will take you to the next level (or layer as they are called in the Bumblebee documentation) until you find some audio to play. A long press also activates the play and pause buttons to initiate playback. To go back a layer, there is a software “back” button to the right of the physical Home button, and pressing the Home button will take you directly to the Bumblebee Home screen from where you can access the other Bumblebee applications.
However, not all functions follow this consistency. For instance, several of the applications allow you to establish a list of favourite media so that you can access frequently played content easily.
In order to add an item such as a radio station to favourites, a toggle button appears to the right of the relevant item’s name. However, this button’s status is toggled as soon as it is touched, unlike other items which are activated with the afore mentioned long press. While the on/off status of the toggle button is announced, there is no feedback about which item it relates to, which can result in items inadvertently being added to favourites if you don’t keep your hand straight when moving it from the station name to the favourites toggle button.
Bumblebee features a help application as part of the suite. It includes an audio manual narrated in synthetic speech, which you navigate as you do the rest of the applications. Each Bumblebee application on the tablet has its own section in the manual, which I found to be somewhat repetitive as concepts such as scrolling are included in each section rather than being covered generically at the start. Still, the manual is clear and comprehensive.
I should say that I do not own or have on loan a Sonata, so I do not know how the content on Bumblebee compares to that available on other BWBF devices. However, Bumblebee provides access to a large variety of mainstream and blindness-specific radio stations and podcasts from all over the world. You can also access local talking newspapers, and a limited selection of books. It is also possible to request that content not currently available be added by contacting BWBF.
For UK readers of this review, all the usual stations you might expect are featured, including both BBC national and local offerings, as well as many commercial and alternative stations.
One of the nice things about the Bumblebee tablet is that if you triple click the Home button, Talkback will be enabled. There is no double speaking when Talkback is turned on, even though the Bumblebee applications are self-voicing. When Talkback is enabled, it is also possible to navigate the screen differently, as both flicking and exploring the screen are supported. In order to activate an item with Talkback running, you need to double-tap and hold rather than simply double-tapping as you would on other Android devices.
While Talkback is in most instances nice-to-have, it is a necessity when connecting to Wi-Fi without sighted assistance. It is possible to connect through the Bumblebee suite of applications by entering your Wi-Fi network’s SSID and password, though Talkback will need to be enabled as Bumblebee will not provide access to the on-screen keyboard. However, Bumblebee also allows access to Android settings where you can select your Wi-Fi network from a list.
It is also necessary to have Talkback running to check the battery level. In my view this is a slight flaw given that the Bumblebee applications are designed to be self-voicing, as a failure to check the battery status will result in your media abruptly finishing with no prior warning when the battery goes flat.
Perhaps it’s because I am unfamiliar with products such as the Sonata, but I didn’t find the device entirely intuitive to use as I have learned to use touchscreens on iOS and, to a lesser extent, Android.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, it is not possible to search for content using Bumblebee – it is only possible to browse. Typically I search for content when using podcast and Internet radio apps, so I found myself missing this functionality.
I do not know the profile of the average BWBF user, but I suspect the majority will require help in order to get the device connected to Wi-Fi. That said, for anyone receiving the tablet on loan from BWBF, I understand that an agent will set up the device and provide training on its use when it is delivered to the user.
Bumblebee is an interesting addition to the range of options that allow blind and partially sighted people to access online media. Its consistency of interface and relatively simple concept will no doubt appeal to some, and it would be necessary to install a series of third party apps each with a different look and feel to replicate the functionality that BWBF have built in one package.
For further information, contact BWBF on 01622 754757, or visit their website, www.blind.org.uk