What is OCR Software?

Instructor: Lonny Meinecke

Lonny was once a software programmer (video game industry). He now teaches psychology at King University. He has a bachelor's in IT and a PhD in psychology.

In this lesson, we will discuss OCR software and what it does for us that makes it a great thing to have around. We will also explain a little bit about how OCR software saves us time and space.

What Is OCR Software?

OCR stands for optical character recognition. 'What does that mean?' you ask. Just think of OCR as computer software that can scan a piece of paper for you and type in what it says. Remember that snapshot on your cellphone with a picture of the chalkboard for this week's homework assignment on it? OCR can translate the image of the teacher's words into a text document for you. That saves a lot of typing.

For the most part, anything which can be scanned into a computer file (a fax, a photograph, a snapshot of a check or money order, or even something done on a typewriter which has been scanned into a computer), can be read by OCR software. It's not always great at getting the words right, but often it does.

Example of OCR software
ocr software example

Pictures versus Computer Files

Have you heard of microfilm? Microfilm is a tiny strip of photographic film with tiny pictures on it. Once upon a time (before computers), this was the most efficient way to store information. You just took a picture of a big newspaper and shrank it down to a tiny picture to save space. If you needed to look it up again, you put it in a microfilm reader and manually searched for whatever you needed. Computers have changed how we store and search for information. Computer files save a lot more space and make it a lot easier to search for stuff, too. Nowadays, most images and text are stored in computer files.

Example of a microfilm reader
Microfilm reader

What Is so Great About OCR?

What makes OCR software so special? First of all, text and images are two different things as far as computers are concerned (they were just one thing to good, old microfilm . . . pictures). In a computer, an image is stored as lots of numbers, one for each dot (or group of dots) in the image - even if that image is a snapshot of words on a page. The computer has no idea that words are hidden in that image. It's just a picture.

Image files are huge and waste lots of space on a computer, because every single dot in the image needs to be stored as a number. We can't search for text or edit it, because it's a picture.

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