Evaluating the New OCR Desktop Programs; Today's Optical Character Recognition Software Can Read Print Better, and Cheaper, Than Ever
Berger, Alfred D., Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management
Today's optical character recognition software can read print better, and cheaper, than ever
Optical character recognition (OCR) has come a long way since it could decipher only those funny-looking numbers the bank prints on your checks and the misshapen alphabets that went with them-called OCR A and OCR B.
Modern OCR equipment can read just about anything the human eye can read, except handwriting, and even that isn't far off: There's a prototype system in the Soviet Union, of all places, that can read handwritten script.
Like most other functions in publishing, OCR has now moved into the desktop world. Hardware and software for it have become powerful, versatile, accurate and fast, with prices to match the workload and complexity of the tasks it's called on to do.
For simple text, such as manuscripts turned out by a typewriter or a daisy-wheel printer, OCR software can be had for under $500-assuming you already have a graphic scanner. The combination of scanner and software can cost as little as $ 1,000. There is even a hand scanner that is sold with OCR software for only $199.
At the high end, if your workload is complex, you can spend up to $32,000. But between those extremes, a wide variety of OCR hardware and software is available for both the Apple Macintosh and the IBM PC and its clones.
Why do you need it?
The irony, of course, is that as OCR gets better and less expensive, the need for it in most publishing companies is decreasing. Probably the most common use of OCR in publishing is still reading manuscripts from outside contributors into a computer system, but a growing number of professional writers now submit their work by modem or disk.
However, it will be some time before all magazines can rely on receiving all copy on disk. Weaning writers from paper can be a slow process, as Cindy Rogers, executive editor for McGraw-Hill Healthcare Publications, attests. The Minneapolis-based healthcare group publishes four medical magazines, and the majority of its outside authors still submit copy on paper-"And once in a while, believe it or not, we still get a hand written manuscript," says Rogers.
The healthcare group is making it a priority to persuade authors to submit diskettes through such simple measures as promising to return the diskette. Still, its OCR system is bound to be around for a while yet: In February of this year, just 25 percent of the submissions came in on disk, leaving 412 pages to be scanned in.
In the end, even after all writers turn in electronic copy, there still will be many uses for OCR in publishing. Some publications that run large new-product sections, for example, scan press releases and then edit them. With sophisticated OCR systems, they can scan in the accompanying art at the same time. Other publications use OCR to scan tabular material from government releases and publications.
Choosing a system
If you're shopping for an OCR system, consider how you're going to use it. As the types of pages to be read become more complex, more software features are needed. For example, a magazine page with typeset text in three or four columns is a lot harder to decipher than a typed manuscript page, and it is more difficult yet if it includes headlines and artwork. Here are some of the key capabilities to look for when evaluating the latest generation of OCR software:
Omnifont capability. This means the system uses a technique called feature extraction to analyze the shape of a character in terms of lines and curves, rather than by comparing it against a few templates, to determine what letter it is. Size becomes irrelevant; anything that has the basic shape of an A will be identified.
Spell checking. Some programs include a spelling checker (which may have foreign-language dictionaries associated with it). …