July 23, 2024

Portable OCR: Will the iPhone 5 Save the day?

iPhone screen with large numeral 5 and Apple logoThe KNFB reader, developed by the National Federation of the Blind and Kurzweil Technologies, Inc., is the first truly portable OCR device. It can easily snap a picture of a page of text and read it aloud. The KNFB reader runs on a Nokia N86 Symbian-based phone and, when combined with a screen reader, provides a complete package for portable OCR and communication applications. It can be used to read just about anything: a utility bill, magazine article, library book, and even labels at the grocery store.

So, the KNFB reader is very portable, the character recognition is excellent, and it can also be used as a cell phone, what could be wrong with that? Not much really, except that the whole package sells for about $1800, including the KNFB software, n86 phone, and screen reader. The other catch is that many blind and visually impaired people have moved on from Nokia because of the lack of built-in accessibility in favor of the Apple iPhone, which includes a screen reader at no extra charge.

The iPhone also makes sense given the uncertain future of the Symbian platform. Nokia has laid off nearly all of their Symbian development team and contracted with Microsoft to ship Windows Mobile 7 on their products. While Windows Mobile 6 was very accessible, in a giant step backward, Windows Mobile 7 does not provide for accessibility. The choice for an accessible mobile platform for communication and applications such as OCR comes down to companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, and Google Android, who provide little or no built-in accessibility, or Apple, which includes accessibility in every product as a matter of company policy.

What about the KNFB Reader? It is still the best and most accurate OCR application available for blind and visually impaired users. It is much better than even the best OCR applications currently running on the iPhone. Surprisingly, Kurzweil Technology has said they have no plans to release a version for the iPhone.

There are, however, several good OCR applications available for the iPhone today. The best of these is probably Prizmo which sells for $10 in the iTunes store. Aroga Technologies has posted an excellent review that compares Prizmo with the KNFB Reader. While Prizmo performs well, it does not stand up to the KNFB Reader, which reads a selection of documents with little or no errors. The reviewer believes that the problem is not the application but rather the limited resolution of the current generation of iPhones and that a higher resolution camera on the upcoming iPhone 5 could
provide a proper solution for a low cost portable OCR reader.