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Definition of Optical Character Recognition and How It’s Used in Scanning Technology 

What is the meaning of OCR in scanning and PDF terminology? How does optical character recognition work? Why would you need to know about OCR technology?

Optical character recognition, or OCR, is a useful piece of technology for scanning documents and images. OCR software is designed to recognize text in any image and convert it into an electronic document with editable text. The image usually needs to be a digital file in the JPG/TFF or other commonly used image formats. 

You may be wondering, why would you want a picture to be converted into text? Well, a picture can be a lot of things. You can take a picture of handwritten notes, a plaque at a museum, or even a physical document, and then use an OCR to convert it to a digital editable document.   

How Does an OCR Work? 

OCRs may range in specific functions but they generally work the same way: You import an image file into the OCR. Then, the OCR program locates and recognizes characters such as English letters, numbers, and symbols (e.g. !#^&), and exports the text it finds into a new document. Some advanced OCRs will even try to find and export the size and formatting settings of the text in the image. 

OCRs also have pattern recognition to detect commonalities in the text that it’s scanning. The letter “K” for example, may look one way when I write it but an entirely different way when you write it. But an OCR can detect patterns in the letters we write to determine what the letter is. Let’s say we both write this sentence:

“Lucky Luke likes lakes.” 

If you took an image of that sentence and imported it into an OCR, the OCR will notice that the letter K is used 4 times in this sentence. You probably wrote that letter the same way all 4 times and will continue to write it that way in the rest of the document that the OCR is scanning. The OCR will also use this sentence to determine how you write the letter “L,” “l,” and more. OCRs cross-reference letters across different instances to make a more accurate digital version of an image. 

The success rate, or how accurate the text is to the original document, of an OCR will be determined by the quality of the image you import. If your image isn’t taken on a good camera or is low-resolution, the OCR may struggle to produce an accurate document. 

OCRs are used a lot in the real world. Some apps on your phone can take pictures of physical notes you made and convert them to digital text. The U.S. Postal Service uses OCRs to read letter addresses and sort mail more effectively. 

Why Use Optical Character Recognition?

You may be wondering why you need to know about OCRs and what you would want to use them for. OCRs are particularly useful when you want to edit and interact with a piece of text more effectively. If you have physical notes, you can’t use the CTRL + F to search for specific words or phrases. If you made a mistake in your notes or need to add something new, it’s much easier to make a change in a digital document than a physical one. 

OCRs are also useful if you receive a piece of text that’s difficult to read. An OCR can scan that piece of text and convert it into a digital document that’s much easier to read. You can then increase the font size of that text to make it even more decipherable. 

While the PDF file format isn’t necessarily an “image,” it also isn’t an editable doc. PDFs are designed to maintain their formatting settings across any device to be easy to read and access no matter what. If you want to edit the text in a PDF, however, you’ll either need to use a PDF reader or convert the PDF to an editable doc. If you choose the latter option, an OCR like PDF.Live scans the PDF and creates a new document with the text from the original PDF that you can then edit. 

PDF.Live offers both options:

  • A PDF editor entirely in your browser (no downloads required!) that you can use to make small adjustments to your PDF. 
  • A PDF to Doc converter that converts PDFs to editable docs. You can then open that editable doc in a document editor like Microsoft Word.