Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a process of converting printed materials into text or word processing files that can be easily edited and stored. The technology has enabled such materials to be stored using much less storage space than the hard copy materials. OCR technology has made a huge impact on the way information is stored, shared and edited. Prior to optical character recognition, if someone wanted to turn a book into a word processing file, each page would have to be typed word for word.
OCR technology requires both hardware and software. In addition, sophisticated OCR systems require an additional circuit board in the computer itself to complete the process. An optical scanner scans the text on a page, then breaks the fonts down into a series of dots called a bitmap. The software can read most common fonts and distinguish where lines start and stop. This bitmap is then translated into computer text.
While optical character recognition has made huge advances in recent years, it still does not always perform well in recognizing handwriting or fonts that look similar to handwriting. There are systems within the banking industry that use OCR technology to try to read the amounts on hand-written checks, to go along with the computer's ability to read the routing and account numbers.
To give an idea of the power of OCR, it can help to take a look at a real-world example. Imagine a police department that has all its criminal records stored in vast file cabinets. Although scanning millions of pages would be an expensive and time-consuming undertaking, the benefits are huge.
Once the OCR system has converted the pages into computer-readable text, a detective, for example, could search through the entire history in a few seconds. Manually finding a particular record might not be too difficult, but imagine a detective trying to search for all the crimes committed on a certain intersection between 8:00 and 8:30. This example only scratches the surface of the power of searchable text, and it is only one reason that many companies and institutions are spending millions of dollars to OCR their legacy data.