One of the most powerful categories of productivity apps available for visually impaired users on both iOS and Android is Optical Character Recognition, or OCR: software that enables users to take a picture of text, and have the app read it back with the device’s screen reader. For example, you can take a picture of a magazine article or printed recipe and have it read aloud by the smartphone! There are dozens of OCR apps specifically designed to help people with visual impairments live their best lives. Here are 4 of the best OCR apps for the visually impaired in 2021.
What is OCR
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a form of technology that identifies the characters – like numbers and letters — included in an image.
Optical Character Recognition, or OCR application enables users to take a picture of text, and have the app read it back with the device’s screen reader such as VoiceOver. For example, you can take a picture of a magazine article or printed recipe and have it read aloud by the smartphone! This can be done using a computer and a scanner or a digital camera, but this is expensive and bulky when compared to using a smartphone.
OCR has been around for decades. Years ago, when Ray Kurzweil developed one of the first commercially available OCR devices, it originally cost tens of thousands of dollars and was the size of a filing cabinet—neither cheap nor portable.
Over time these devices have morphed into software applications that can run on a smartphone, and there are now apps available on both the Apple iOS and Google Android platforms and costs infinitely less—or free, which I will talk about below.
Each of these applications require processing data sets that consist of hundreds of thousands scanned documents or images in order to train and optimize the algorithms. Processing the training data set is typically done by humans in order to provide accurate data that can be used by the engine to learn and apply, making it "smarter" over time. Currency identifier apps such as Cash Reader employs the same concept.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the best OCR apps for the blind and visually impaired.
The best OCR apps for the blind and visually impaired
Voice Dream Scanner
This has to be one of the most useful OCR apps on the Apple Store and Google Play Store. It makes it easy to scan printed paper documents.
The app uses your phones in built camera to auto focus on text in view. A photo is taken, and the app will read back all the text. And of course, with the iPhone you can decrease or increase the speed of the read-back using your phones settings. Photos can then be deleted or saved dependant on whether you need to read something back later.
The app is able to detect when all edges of the document being scanned are visible, and it uses a tone which varies in volume to indicate when the phone is pointing at the text and is properly in focus. The app can be set up to automatically snap a picture when your phone is in the right position, about 12 inches above the text. The scanning is all done on the phone so none of your scans are uploaded on to the internet. This means that your documents are kept private, and the process of scanning the document and doing the OCR is all generally completed in less than 3 seconds. It’s enhanced scanning accuracy is brilliant and it supports various languages.
However, this stand-alone app only scans paper documents and photos stored on your device. If you want to import PDF files you should install the Voice Dream Reader, app created by the same developer. This is a great app for reading almost any kind of audio or text file and it now includes the OCR features of Voice Dream Scanner, and I would strongly recommend this app.
Voice Dream Scanner costs $5.99 and the Voice Dream Reader app costs $19.99.
Voice OCR is an OCR app that will also allow the import of PDF files as well as recognising handwriting. It is simple to use, and it also gives you a report of how many edges of the document are visible to help with lining up the phone. Another great feature of the Voice OCR app is that it will allow you to speak commands to make the app take a photo then recognise the text. The spoken command Capture will take the photo and the spoken command Read will recognise the text and start reading any text it finds aloud. I have found Voice OCR to be very good at recognising handwriting, in fact you don’t need to tell the app whether you are reading handwriting or standard text – it is able to recognise both types of text.
The main downside of Voice OCR is that all the recognition is done online so the scanned image of the document is sent to a server and the resultant text is sent back to the phone. This helps with the task of processing the handwriting, but an internet connection is required, and some may have concerns around privacy.
Seeing AI was surely going to pop up somewhere on this list, right?
The app has “short text” mode which is real time OCR, where you don’t need to snap a picture, it will simply read whatever is the view of the camera. All you have to do is point the camera to the item and once text is found, the app will read it. The app will continue to look for text, which can be useful if looking for a room number or address.
The app also features document mode where it can scan automatically or using a snapshot and shows you the OCR in text view. The easiest way to scan a document page with Seeing AI is to put the phone on the document with the camera in the middle. Gradually lift the phone up and the app will say which edges are not visible. Slowly lift the phone up until you hear "hold steady." This means that the document is going to be photographed in about two seconds. After the document is processed, it can be read using VoiceOver navigation or by activating the "Play" button at the bottom left of the screen. Additional options at the bottom of the screen are Stop, Increase Font Size, Decrease Font Size, and Share.
Lookout by Google
Like the name hints, the app was developed by Google. It uses your phone’s camera to process the image and turns it into text that a screen reader can read. It turns on the flashlight automatically when needed.
The app features “quick read” which is real time OCR, where you don’t need to take a picture, it will simply read whatever is the view of the camera.
It also has document mode where it can scan automatically or using a snapshot and shows you the OCR in text view. The document mode has voice guidance to tell you where to move the camera.
The technology for recognising text on mobile phones is improving all the time, and it is hard to predict which apps will be the best for scanning documents in the next few months. Thanks to iOS 15 Live Text feature, iPhone Camera can now seamlessly detect written text from the viewfinder and let you instantly copy and paste it anywhere in the iPhone.
There you have it – a comprehensive list of best OCR apps for the blind and visually impaired. If you have other recommendations, feel free to drop them in the comment section below.