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.
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.
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.
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.
However, text is not stored as pictures in computers; it is stored efficiently as something called ASCII codes, with just one code for each symbol. Text files are tiny, and computers can store oodles of them. So, if we had a way to scan images into text, it would be much better. OCR software does that.
Even better, once we have images converted to text files, we can edit them using a word processor and automatically search through them to locate something. That's a really powerful feature when you need to search a law library for that string of words you know is there, but can't remember in which volume it is (or even in which library it is!).
OCR software lets us scan images into computer files and then automatically treats them like text. Instead of hand typing text from a piece of paper into a computer, OCR software can scan the paper and 'type' it in for you. OCR software is efficient because it lets us store images of text as plain, old text, which also takes up less space. OCR software allows us to turn unsearchable pictures into searchable documents.
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