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What is OCR and How Is It Used?

What is ocr

What is OCR?

OCR is one of several AI-driven functions designed to process language. From scanning books to analyzing PDF content to translating text, this technique can be used to improve business productivity, enhance employee workflows, add convenience to our everyday lives, and more.

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In this post, we will learn what OCR is used for, how it works, its use cases, and a few top apps that use OCR.

What is OCR and How Is It Used?

OCR is short for optical character recognition, an AI-powered technique where computers can recognize handwritten or machine-written characters.

This technique is used to extract text from photos, scanned documents, images, and even video. As with many other AI techniques, OCR is useful for automation and can add value to businesses, the modern digital workplace, and customers.

Here are a few examples of OCR applications:

  • Extracting text from physical records in order to digitize business records
  • Digitizing books and making them searchable
  • Extracting text from PDFs to enable searching
  • Extracting financial information from physical records such as receipts or invoices

Additionally, OCR can be used in conjunction with other AI techniques to create more complex functionality.

For instance:

  • Text can be extracted from a book and then read aloud
  • Receipt data can be extracted from images and then input automatically into a personal finance app
  • OCR applications can be used by transportation officials, such as immigration officials, to track travelers’ movements
  • Text can be extracted from photos and stored inside note-taking apps such as Google Keep

Given the need for business digitization, it should come as no surprise the businesses around the world use OCR to automate business processes and automate workflows, by, for instance, digitizing physical business records.

How Does OCR Work?

OCR examines an image and attempts to recognize patterns, then matches those patterns with known characters. Below is a general outline of how this process works.

  • First, OCR tools will preprocess an image in order to improve the chances of successful character recognition. This can involve cleaning up the image, adjusting the image’s rotation, analyzing the layout of the image, and more.
  • Pattern matching is the next step, where input glyphs are extracted from the image.
  • The next step is feature extraction, which breaks the glyphs down into features like lines, closed loops, and line intersections.
  • Post processing steps can include comparing characters to a lexicon of words that are allowed in the document or using syntactic analysis to improve the output.

The sophistication of OCR techniques will depend on the software conducting the analysis. Many software platforms, though, have become quite sophisticated and accurate. The most accurate OCR platform to date is Google Cloud Platform’s Vision OCR tool which has achieved 98% accuracy in one test.

How to Take Advantage of OCR

OCR technology is available in certain types of software applications.

There are quite a few OCR tools, many of which are free (see below). These can perform functions such as extracting text from images and outputting it into a file. Some apps can extract text from an image and read it out loud. Others can extract text from an image and translate it into another language.

Another way to take advantage of OCR is to use APIs. For those who know how to program, APIs can be a way to create your own unique applications for your own personal use – or to monetize. Most major technology companies, such as Microsoft and Google, have APIs that include OCR, making this technology easily accessible to anyone.

Finally, perhaps the most challenging way to take advantage of OCR is to study AI and OCR. Naturally, this is more time-consuming and only suitable for those working in the field of AI, so for most of us it is best to use apps that already exist.

Apps that Use OCR

OCR is readily available through the most popular app stores, putting OCR technology within the reach of anyone who has a smartphone. 

Here are a few examples of apps that use OCR:

  • Google Keep is a note-taking app similar to OneNote, Evernote, and Microsoft’s note function. One of its features is the ability to grab text from an image or a photo from your phone, then store that in a note.
  • Google Translate, mentioned above, is another example of an app using OCR technology. Simply upload a picture or take a photo and it will extract text from the image and translate it into the language of your choice.
  • CamScanner is an app that can be used to turn images into PDFs, edit the text created from those images, and even store them in the cloud.
  • Evernote Scannable is an app that, like Google Keep, can turn images into text and store them as notes.
  • Office Lens, a Microsoft product, can convert images to text and, conveniently, it integrates well with other Microsoft products, such as OneNote, Excel, and other Office products.

In addition to the apps listed here, there are a number of websites that offer free, freemium, or paid OCR tools. For the most part, they offer the same functionality as those listed above – namely, they generate text from images.

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