Scanners and OCR

Scanners and OCR

By Richard Heller

Scanners and OCR

Over the past couple of years, one of the computer accessories that has dropped in price is the scanner. Ten years ago, the most popular scanner sold was a hand-held device that enabled you to capture images that could be used in newsletters or company brochures. The price was $100 for a monochrome model, while a color scanner would be $200 or more. You could only scan a 4-inch wide strip, and since it was hand-held, the scan was usually jerky. There were devices sold to steer the scanner, but results were still pretty poor.

Flat bed scanners were available, but prices were excessive for the home user. You could find a few scanners selling in the $500 range, but most were going for over $1,000. The programs that were available only worked with certain brands and models, and unless the scanner maker supplied a driver for the program, the use was limited.

A few years ago, the scanner makers got together and decided that in order to bring their products into the mainstream, they had to come up with some sort of “universal” driver. What they developed was a standard named TWAIN. With the TWAIN standard, a programmer could develop a program that did not have to know anything about the scanner that was being used. The TWAIN driver supplied the correct information to the program, and everything worked rather well.

As it was much easier to write a program that worked with a scanner, more programs and scanners were sold. As advances were made in scanner technology, it was possible to reduce the manufacturing costs. As a result, the prices of scanners began to drop, going from $500 to $300, until today they can be purchased for $30. The new scanners are faster, easier to use, and offer higher resolutions. With the use of TWAIN, it is possible to scan a picture into your word processing document or a spreadsheet.

One application that has benefited from this is Optical Character Recognition or OCR. The scanner is nothing more than a camera, and when you scan a document, you have a “picture” of the document. In order to use the document in your word processor, you have to run the OCR software. This software examines every character on the page, compares it to the outlines of letters stored in its database and creates a page of text. This text file can then be saved and used in a word processor where it can be edited.

One application for OCR is foreign language translation. It is fairly difficult to type a letter into your computer if you don’t have the foreign characters on your keyboard, and a foreign keyboard is rather expensive. By utilizing your scanner and OCR software that recognizes foreign characters, it is possible to produce a document that can be translated into English or other foreign languages, such as German or Russian. This is extremely useful if you are working with genealogy.

Richard Heller is an independent computer specialist who specializes in repairs, installation, upgrades, technical support, Internet sharing, data recovery and diagnostics. If you have any computer or service-related questions, please send them to The Rock River Times or e-mail

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