OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. It denotes the process of converting printed material into word processing files or text files that can be read, edited, and managed using computers. OCR also refers to the mechanical or electronic conversion of handwritten to typewritten data into this form. Typically, OCR software is used to carry out this conversion.

Why do we Need OCR?

To have a computer, tablet, smart phone, or other device ‘read’ data that is not in computer-compatible form, such as a printed page, it has to be scanned and fed into the machine. However, this data is an ‘image’ as far as the computer is concerned, not text. That means none of the actions that you can perform on text (editing, formatting, deleting, etc.) can be carried out on this ‘image.’ OCR turns this ‘image’ into text so that it is in a more practical, usable form. In effect, OCR can convert a graphic (from, say, a JPG file) into a TXT or DOC file that can be processed easily.

How Does OCR Work?

By expanding this to apply on handwritten notes, we can see that OCR does much more than simply convert patterns into text. No two people write the same way, which means that OCR handwriting recognition software encounters different patterns that may denote the same letter or word. Books, documents, and pages may be printed with different typefaces or with subtle differences. How then does the OCR software read?

There are two points to note in understanding how OCR software ‘reads’—patterns and features. A simple OCR program may be designed to read many different fonts and patterns. When any of the compatible patterns are presented to the software, it can convert it to machine-readable text accurately. However, this is clearly not an exhaustive solution because there are innumerable fonts in existence, and also the handwriting of different persons may not conform to set patterns.

ICR, or Intelligent Character Recognition, is an advanced version of OCR and it uses feature extraction to spot and ‘understand’ characters. A set formula may be applied to check if the presented data conforms to a pattern. For example, to read the letter A, the software may check if two angled lines are present that meet at the top with a horizontal line bisecting both at the center.

The Immense Impact of OCR

OCR (along with paperless document management) can make life easier in many ways. Here are a few of the biggest benefits we stand to gain:

  • Printed matter can be stored efficiently, easily, and in a highly compact manner. A room full of books and manuscripts can be reduced to nothing more than a thumb drive.
  • Printed material can be easily edited once it is in digital form. Searching through books for a specific passage or even a single word simply isn’t practical when working with printed matter. A computer can do this in seconds when the data is stored as text. For research purposes, OCR is an incredible tool that has simply revolutionized this field of work.
  • In businesses, OCR brings about significant improvement in efficiency. Statistically, of the 12 minutes required by an employee to process a document, 9 minutes are spent in locating and getting it ready for use. A document that is already in readable form in the computer can be accessed with a few clicks in seconds, improving productivity immensely.
  • Enhanced accessibility is another advantage of OCR. A book may be accessible to those who are in physical proximity to it. However, material that is in digital form can be accessed by or sent to people located anywhere in the globe. What’s more, many users can access the same document at the same time.
  • Safeguarding vital documents becomes much easier when the material is in digital form. Books, manuscripts, and files may all be damaged beyond repair due to a myriad of unforeseeable reasons—water leakage, fire, poor handling, etc. Having these documents in a digital format allows you to store them in more than one safe location as backup so that critical data is never permanently lost or damaged beyond use.
  • Lastly, substantial savings can be achieved by opting for OCR and paperless document management. Converting print data into digital lets you avoid spending on filing, archiving, and storage. There is no need for supplies such as paper, ink, or files to store these documents, neither is there any need for staff members to carry out these tasks. The costs saved here can work out to thousands of dollars over a year.