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Collection: Technology for Students Who are Visually Impaired

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NCIP Staff, 1994

The following is a summary of Optical Character Recognition technology, including descriptions of specific products. The products are used as examples of the technology and do not constitute a complete list of products. Inclusion of a product's name does not imply endorsement of that product and descriptions of products are supplied by the manufacturer and are not evaluations of the products.

Optical Character Recognition Systems


Although not originally developed for users who are visually impaired, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology has become an aid for inputting documents quickly by and for users with vision impairments. A complete OCR system consists of a scanner, the recognition component, and OCR software that interacts with the other components to store the computerized document in the computer. The process of inputting the material into the computer begins with the scanner taking a picture of the printed material. Then, during the recognition process, the picture is analyzed for layout, fonts, text and graphics. Finally, the picture of the document is converted into an electronic format that can be edited with an application software. OCR systems designed specifically for users with visual impairments have modified interfaces that can be used with minimal assistance. Currently the price range for this technology is $3,000 to over $10,000. The product's increasing popularity for business use, however, is expected to lower the cost. In addition, technological developments will see an increase in accuracy, including the ability of these products to decipher even handwritten materials.

In general, OCR systems work as an external device with the user's existing assistive technology. Once the picture is in electronic format, it is accessed for reading and/or editing through the user's braille, speech or magnification technology. Since some products work better with certain speech or braille systems, therefore, it is important to note its compatibility with the other products in the user's computer system . Some products, however, have an adaptive device built in. These are referred to as "stand-alone reading machines." Of these, some products have the added flexibility of working either as stand-alone or with a computer.

In addition to whether the system is stand-alone or works in conjunction with the user's computer, there are many other features to consider depending on the user's needs, including:

accuracy of scanning, and whether the product can handle poor-quality print or image print, such as faxes;

level of flexibility in terms of the material's size and format, such as large paper documents and books, and whether the system will offers automatic adjustment of brightness, contrast and orientation of print (vertical or horizontal);

whether the user controls are accessible, such as braille keypads or speech feedback:

whether manuals are supplied in braille and/or on casette, and the level of online technical support.

Sample Products

An Open Book (Arkenstone)
The OpenBook is an optical character recognition system which converts text pages into an electronic text file and reads them with a voice synthesizer. The system consists of a scanner, processing unit with the DECtalk speech synthesizer, and a 17-key keypad. Features of the system include automatic page orientation, automatic contrast adjustment, decolumnization of multicolumn documents and the ability to recognize a wide variety of type faces and font sizes. Text scanned with the OpenBook can be saved in the system's document library for future use. At least 5000 can be stored and saved at any time.

The OpenBook is available in Standard, Deluxe, and Special models. This system is hardware independent of computer type. All versions of the OpenBook can be upgraded to a full featured IBM 386 or 486 computer. The OpenBook software is also available separately.

Arkenstone Reader (Arkenstone, Inc.)
For IBM PCs and compatibles. The Arkenstone Reader is a reading software and hardware package that converts printed text into a computer text file, which can then be read by a speech synthesizer or Braille device. The Arkenstone can recognize typewritten, typeset, laser print, draft-quality dot matrix, and other computer printouts with monospace or proportional fonts sized from 6 to 28 points. The Reader has a reading capability of up to 600 characters per second. Supported formats include: single and multiple columns, variable column widths, tables, lists, paragraphs, and intermixed text and graphics. The software is able to determine if a document is placed upside down or sidewarys on the reader, and adjust the scanning process accordingly. The Quick Speech feature permits the user to listen to the page while it is being recognized.

IRIS Reading System (Visuaide 2000, Inc.)
For IBM PC AT or PS/2 and compatibles. IRIS Reading Interface is a software package that, when combined with the appropriate hardware, allows the computer to function as a reading machine using optical character recognition. IRIS uses the numeric pad on the AT-style extended keyboard to control a variety of reading, notetaking, and file management functions. IRIS also includes context-sensitive online help, and can send the document being read to a peripheral unit.

Required (all extra)
A Calera TrueScan character recognition card, a scanner supported by the TrueScan, and speech synthesis hardware. IRIS does not require a screen review program to operate or read text.

OsCaR (TeleSensory, Inc.)
For IBM PCs and compatibles. The system recognizes text from 6 to 72 points in size, and in type styles such as underlined, bold, italic, and headline. Text to be scanned can be oriented either vertically or horizontally on the page. OsCaR has been designed to work with TeleSensory devices such as Navigator, Vista, VersaPoint, and the Vert screen access hardware and software, and can produce files (including Grade 2 Braille) for direct use with these devices. The package includes the user interface software, scanner and recognition software. A package including Braille translation software is available.

Reading Edge (Xerox Imaging Systems)
Hardware Independent. This system is a reading machine with voice output. Reading Edge will read the material to the user as it is being scanned. Almost any kind of type or size can be recognized, including text in multiple columns and different languages. An automatic page function will adjust for pages that are upside down. The surface of the scanner is designed to hold books. Documents are saved in memory and can be edited with a built-in Braille keypad and can be transferred to a computer through the serial port.

Reading AdvantEdge (Xerox Imaging Systems)
For IBM PCs (at least 386) and compatibles. Software product and other than a scanner, requires no additional hardware be installed on the computer. Recognizes an typeface or size, including international languages. Features include automatic page orientation, contrast adjustment, and ability to scan multiple pages before recognition process. The user can have the text read aloud with a screen reader and a synthesized speech card, convert and save text for editing in a variety of word processing formats, enlarge text on the screen, or convert into Braille. The system is available with a variety of scanner options.

ReadMan (Schamex Research)
Scans material on the flat surface of the desktop model or with a hand-held scanner. Has multiple voices for speech. User can store scanned-in materials on disks.

Robotron (Robotron)
Stand-alone reading machine.

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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