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Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, is software designed to translate images of text into actual text that a computer can read. Generally, it is used after an image has been scanned into a computer, although other forms of input may also be used. OCR software works best on text that has already been typed, either in cases where an original printout has been lost, or in scanning sheets typed on a typewriter. Good software may also be able to translate handwritten text, however, although the error rate on this sort of conversion tends to be much higher.
The actual term OCR software is a bit misleading, as most modern versions do not in fact use optical character recognition, but actually use digital character recognition. This is because some years ago the fields effectively merged, and both fields adopted the more attractive term optical character recognition. OCR software has advanced a great deal in recent years, with modern programs substantially better than their predecessors at identifying text.
In fact, early OCR software required training the program on a specific font before it could be accurately input. Similarly, when inputting handwriting, the program would have to be trained, a process that could be incredibly time consuming. Methods have improved, however, and more intelligent systems are now the norm. The methods used are now relatively static, with only a little bit research going into developing entirely new methods, and most research going into refining existing procedures to make them ever more accurate. Early versions of software were used in a wide range of applications, with major corporations using them to read credit card imprints in the 1950s, and the United States Postal Service using them to sort mail since the mid-1960s.
Ten years ago, choosing a piece of OCR software was difficult, as many programs were quite bad at certain tasks, and reasonably good at others. These days, however, the field has been largely leveled. Accuracy rates in any good software for translating Latin scripts that have been typed are above 99%. When it comes to inputting handwriting, however, or more intricate typefaces, OCR software still has a relatively high range.
The cost of OCR software also fluctuates widely, often in relation to the accuracy rates it boasts. A fair amount of free software can be found which is suitable for inputting printed matter, and some can be found which is relatively good at detecting handwriting, especially with some training. More expensive software suites, such as the OmniPage suite, which costs around $100 US Dollars (USD) for the home version and around $450 USD for the professional version, boast impressive arrays of features, and generally higher success rates.
Unfortunately, there is still no such thing as perfect OCR software, so choosing a program to buy can still largely be a frustrating process. Even the best programs will likely have a difficult time with handwriting, and errors will inevitably creep through, even at low levels. Mostly, choosing a program to buy comes down to extra features: multi-lingual support, one-touch scan and conversion integration, automatic PDF conversion, and whole-word recognition across specialized disciplines like legal and medical fields.