Elderly white man using his phone in the park

The best iPhone apps for scanning and reading text

Using iPhone for reading paper-based documents

One of the most popular and useful tasks that visually impaired people perform with a smartphone such as the iPhone, other than making phone calls of course, is reading paper-based documents. The process involves taking a picture of a document and analysing it for text and putting the text into an editable document. This process is known as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This can be done using a computer and a scanner or a digital camera, but this is expensive and bulky when compared to using a smartphone.

Until relatively recently, apps that offered decent OCR accuracy on smartphones were quite expensive, with one well known and popular app costing £100. Recently however, the underlying technology behind these OCR apps has become cheaper for app developers to license and there are now apps available on both the Apple iOS and Google Android platforms for under £10 which I will discuss below:

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 being scanned are visible, and it uses a tone which varies in volume to indicate when the phone is pointing at the text and is properly in focus. The app can be set up to automatically take a picture when your phone is in the right position, about 12 inches above the text. The scanning is all done on the phone so none of your scans are uploaded on to the internet. This means that your documents are kept private, and the process of scanning the document and doing the OCR is all generally completed in less than 3 seconds.

However, this stand-alone 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 and 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 how many edges of the document are visible to help with lining up the phone. Another handy feature of the Voice OCR app is that it will allow you to speak commands to make the app take a photo then recognise the text. The spoken command Capture will take the photo and the spoken command Read will recognise the text and start reading any text it finds aloud. I have found Voice OCR to be very good at recognising handwriting, in fact you don’t need to tell the app whether you are reading handwriting or standard text – it is able to recognise both types of text.

The main disadvantage of Voice OCR is that all the recognition is done online so the scanned image of the document is sent to a server and the resultant text is sent back to the phone. This helps with the task of processing the handwriting, but an internet connection is required, and some may have concerns around privacy.

The technology for recognising text on mobile phones is improving all the time, and 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 have been available and updated frequently. The Voice OCR app was not updated for a few years until quite recently when the latest version was launched. When apps of this quality are available for less than £10 as a one-off payment however, it is still worth installing them and giving them a try.

OCR plus object recognition

There is another category of app which includes OCR as well as object recognition, face recognition and other features.  Apps in this category include Seeing AI from Microsoft which runs only on iOS devices and Lookout by Google which runs only on Android phones.  Both these programs are great options which enable the user to access Free OCR capability no matter which platform is being used. 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. It is just necessary to hold the phone about 12 inches or 30 centimetres away from the text to be read. This makes these apps particularly good for tasks such as checking the post where you want to quickly find out whether letters need to be read in detail or if they are just junk mail you don’t need to worry about.

Subscription apps

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

Graham Page, Access Technology Adviser;  February 2021

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