Review: O6 Eyes-Free Controller for iPhone | iLounge

Review

Review: O6 Eyes-Free Controller for iPhone

B-
Limited Recommendation

Company: Fingertips Lab

Model: O6

Price: $99

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Jesse Hollington

Although iPhone accessories have become fairly routine, every once in a while we see a unique product that draws our attention. Fingertip Lab's new O6 is one such example of "something different" for iPhone users — a "life remote" that allows you to control your iPhone (or iPad or iPod touch) without having to interact with the screen, providing not only the ability to control music playback, but also narrated access to notifications, emails, tweets and more — even articles you've saved to services like Pocket. It's an interesting approach to curbing the problem with distracted driving, but can also be a very handy accessibility tool for the visually impaired.

The O6 is a small, round device about 1.5” in diameter that’s slightly reminiscent of an iPod click wheel in its design and method of interaction. It’s available in either tangerine orange or cool grey and comes packaged with a charging dock and USB charging cable; you’ll need to supply your own USB power source. The rechargeable battery promises a lifespan of about 5–7 days between charges.

Two additional accessories for mounting the O6 to a steering wheel or clipping it onto a belt, bag, or seatbelt are sold separately for $19 each. We’d recommend that most users buy at least one of these as well, as the O6 definitely is easier to work with when it’s properly mounted to something rather than just being held in the hand. The clip mount is a simple plastic holder that the O6 locks into with a quarter turn, while the steering wheel mount is more ruggedly designed to clip onto a steering wheel — the O6 attaches to it magnetically to facilitate easy removal, and the mount itself rotates 360 degrees to allow you to position the O6 at a comfortable angle. Although one can argue that selling the mounts separately allows users to choose which one they prefer rather than paying for one they don’t need, in our opinion the plastic mount should have been included in the O6 packaging — it’s a simple plastic clip and it especially doesn’t seem worth its $19 asking price, particularly when compared to the steering wheel mount that sells for the same price. In the very least, the two accessories are disproportionately priced.

O6 pairs to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch using Bluetooth, and basically interacts with your device as if it were an external keyboard, with the necessary mappings to allow for control of audio playback right out of the box, as well as voiceover navigation of just about any app if you’re willing to turn on the necessary Accessibility features in your iOS Settings app. The real magic of the O6, however, comes in the form of the company’s own iOS app, which is used to configure the O6 as well as providing a series of “channels” for various services, including notifications, email, Twitter, NPR One, Pocket, and contacts. Once the O6 app is installed and set up, it will continue running in the background, allowing users to activate it simply by pressing on the O6 device — even when your iPhone is locked.

A press on the centre button is used for selection and play/pause, while a press on any edge of the outside of the ring will take you back to the previous menu level, and turning the ring navigates backward and forward through sections and content. So, for example, you could press the outer ring to get to the list of available channels, and the O6 app will tell you which channel you’re on with a voice prompt. Pressing the centre button enters that channel, and the O6 app will immediately begin reading out content from that channel; turning the ring will skip ahead, and the centre button pauses and resumes the read-back.

With these channels, the O6 app can read out your iOS notifications that are still in the notification centre and take you through your contacts by favourites, recents, or alphabetical grouping, providing options for placing calls, sending texts, and navigating to addresses for any given contact. In addition, you can link the O6 app to your e-mail, Twitter, NPR One, and Pocket accounts to have it read back content from any of those services. At this point, Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook are the only supported email services, however Fingertips Lab states that it intends to add more email services and channels in future updates.

Thanks to the Accessibility settings in iOS, users can also enable an “advanced” mode for the O6 that allows it to navigate through any installed app by using iOS’ built-in Voiceover accessibility feature. In this mode, the O6 is essentially a full accessibility controller for the visually impaired, which was the company’s original inspiration for the O6; however power users may also find it useful if they want to access certain apps beyond those that are baked into the O6 app. Support for triggering Siri is theoretically included here as well, but unfortunately Fingertips Lab notes that there have been “compliance issues” with the feature in iOS 10, suggesting that it’s an issue that needs to be “resolved by Apple,” and is temporarily disabled until they can work out a fix. It’s a disappointing limitation, but depending on how you plan to use O6, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, particularly with the “Hey Siri” support included in recent iPhone models.

The O6 device will also control audio playback in most apps — including the built-in Music and Podcasts apps, as well as Spotify, Audible, Netflix, and YouTube — even in basic mode, although you’ll have to start those apps manually, either from the touchscreen or by using Siri. When controlling audio apps, the centre button acts as a play/pause control and the ring skips to the previous or next track. The O6 will also change into a “smart response mode” when an incoming call arrives, or an interactive notification occurs for something like an alarm, allowing you to either accept/acknowledge or decline/cancel the incoming call or notification request.

The O6 ring can also be used for volume control by triple-clicking on the ring button to switch modes, and then turning it clockwise or counterclockwise to adjust the volume upward or downward in any app. Haptic feedback is used to acknowledge this mode switch and notify you of incoming calls and other relevant notifications, as well as several other functions; Fingertips Lab notes that the vibration motor in the O6 is capable of over 200 distinct haptic effects.

While the O6 seems like it would be especially useful for visually impaired users, we’re not really in a position to comment on that in comparison to other accessibility devices. On the other hand, looking at the O6 for its use as an in-car accessory, you’re probably asking yourself how this is any better than simply using Siri. It’s a valid question, and one we asked ourselves when we first heard about the O6. Fingertips Lab emphasizes that the O6 is about eyes-free browsing — providing a more effective way to work through a series of information, using interactions that are generally more convenient and natural than talking to Siri. After spending a few days with it, we’d tend to agree with that assessment, but it’s going to ultimately depend on how you use your iPhone in the car, and of course what other tools you have at your disposal. We’d also say the O6 is going to appeal far less to those with CarPlay systems, but even in that case, if you’re somebody who likes the idea of having your daily news and saved articles read to you during your commute, the O6 excels in this area and fills a void in Siri’s own capabilities.

We generally like what the O6 has to offer, but while we suspect that visually impaired users may find it invaluable, we’re not sure about the general appeal for those simply looking for an in-car accessory — especially for what amounts to a $118 asking price for the O6 and one of the mounting clips. The O6 app currently has a fairly limited selection of channels, and the problems with Siri in iOS 10, while perhaps not the fault of Fingertips Lab, limits the usefulness of the device even further. The O6 is definitely a great concept, but if it’s going to achieve the goal of discouraging distracted driving, it’s going to need to address some of these issues. As it stands right now, we think it has appeal only for those users that like to be able to skip back and forth quickly through information like articles, tweets and emails and have them read out to them; for anybody else it’s pretty hard to justify the price tag for tasks like playback control and placing calls, which can already be handled by a combination of Siri commands and the controls on most in-car audio systems.

 

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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