Smartphone being used to scan and read textThe best iPhone apps for scanning and reading text

Using iPhone for reading paper-based documents

One of the most useful things a smartphone can do for blind people is read paper-based documents. Phones do this by taking a picture of the document and then analysing it for text. If there is text, it then puts it into an editable document. This process is called Optical Character Recognition (OCR). You can do this using a computer and a scanner or digital camera. But this is expensive and bulky when compared to using a smartphone.

Until recently , apps that offered decent OCR accuracy on smartphones were quite expensive. One popular app cost £100. The underlying technology used in these apps has become cheaper for developers to license. So now there are apps available on both Apple iOS and Google Android platforms. These newer versions are cheaper too – we will discuss platforms that cost less than £10.

Want to know which accessible features come inbuilt on your smartphone? Check out What inbuilt accessibility features are better: iPhone or Android.  

Voice Dream Scanner

Voice Dream Scanner works on both the Apple and Android platforms. It enables the scanning of printed paper documents. It has the ability to detect when all edges of the document photographed are visible. It uses a tone which varies in volume to show when the phone is pointing at the text and is in focus. The app can be set up to take a picture automatically when your phone is in the right position. The right position is about 12 inches above the text. The scanning is all done on the phone so none of your scans will upload on to the internet. This means that your documents stay private. The process of scanning the document and doing the OCR is all generally completed in less than 3 seconds.

However, this app only scans paper documents and photos stored on your device. If you want to import PDF files you should install the Voice Dream Reader app created by the same developer. This is a great app for reading almost any kind of audio or text file. It now includes the OCR features of Voice Dream Scanner, and I would strongly recommend this app.

Voice Dream Scanner costs £6.99 and the Voice Dream Reader app costs £19.99.

Voice OCR

Voice OCR is an OCR app that will also allow the import of PDF files as well as recognising handwriting. It is simple to use, and it also gives you a report of when edges of the document are visible to help with lining up the phone.

Another handy feature of this app is that it will allow you to speak commands. You can command Voice OCR to take a photo and then recognise the text. The spoken command “capture” will take the photo. Then then spoken command “read” will recognise the text and start reading any text it finds aloud. I find Voice OCR to be very good at recognising handwriting. You don’t need to tell the app whether you are reading handwriting or standard text. The app is able to recognise both types of text.

The main disadvantage of Voice OCR is that all the recognition happens online. The scanned image of the document goes to a server and the resultant text comes back to the phone. This helps with the task of processing the handwriting, but you need the internet. Some people might have concerns about privacy too.

The technology for recognising text on mobile phones is improving all the time. It is hard to predict which apps will be the best for scanning documents in 6 months’ time. Some apps such as the Voice Dream family of products update frequently. The Voice OCR app was not updated for a few years until quite recently when the latest version launched. When apps of this quality are available for less than £10 as a one-off payment, is still worth giving them a try.

OCR plus object recognition

Another category of app includes OCR as well as object recognition and face recognition. Seeing AI from Microsoft falls into this category, and it only runs on iOS devices. Lookout by Google is another similar app, and it only runs on Android phones. Both these programs are great options which allow the user to access OCR capability on Android or iOS. Both these apps include the ability to scan for text in real time. This means that you don’t have to take a picture and wait for the result to be recognised. You just need to hold the phone about 12 inches or 30 centimetres away from the text for the phone to read it. This makes these apps particularly good for quick tasks. For example, checking the post to find out whether letters need reading in detail or if they are junk mail.

Subscription apps

There are other apps which include the ability to recognise text as well as object recognition. These are available on a subscription model where you pay to use the app on a weekly or monthly basis. The best known of these is Envision. This runs on Apple and Android phones. One of its biggest strengths is its instant text reading in real time . It’s very responsive and quite accurate.

Graham Page, Access Technology Adviser; updated May 2022

Want to get even more out of your iPhone? Michael Feir has just updated Personal Power – the ultimate guide to using an iPhone for blind users.

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