What is OCR technology & what is it used for?


OCR has entered many parts of our daily lives without our knowledge. It is a very hidden technology (as it is difficult to notice) but its applications are used in many places.

Airports, banks, and any other place that requires any kind of document use OCR in some way.

But what is OCR? And where is it being used? Keep reading to find out.

What is OCR?

OCR stands for “Optical Character Recognition”. It is an AI-based technology that allows computers to detect and extract text from images.

The text that can be extracted can be either handwriting or digital writing. This is also known as image-to-text conversion.

Machine learning is the branch of artificial intelligence associated with computers ‘learning’ stuff. It is used to train them to identify text no matter what font it is written in. This is also used to train them to identify different handwritings.

Since machine learning is too power-consuming and demanding for normal phones and personal computers, these OCR applications are usually used for commercial purposes.

The actual program runs on powerful servers while the phone or PC uses an API to provide it with the image that has the text. That’s why most applications that use OCR run while the device is online. There are some that do not require to be online, however, they are very limited in their functionality.

Now that we know what is OCR, let us see what it is used for in our society.

What is OCR Used for?

OCR has many uses. With the advancement in technology, many OCR-based tools are available. Image to text converter tool is used mainly to extract text from images using OCR. There are many applications for this. In this post, we will be looking at some common ones.

1.    Scanning PDFs

PDF files as we all know are documents that cannot be edited. They are useful for writers when they do not wish for their content to be tampered with. However, in an office or school/university documents are often handed out in PDF formats which later need to be edited.

In schools, it could be a homework assignment that needs to be solved inside the document. In that case, the poor students would have to manually retype the entire document in an editable format such as a Word file. However, with an image to text converter, that task is made easy.

In an office, reports may be filed in a non-editable file format to prevent tampering. Mistakes can be made, however, and can result in some corrections required in the files.

Just scanning the PDF file with the tool will extract the entire text inside it and turn it into an editable Word or TXT document. Other file formats can also be extracted from, for example:

  • EPUB
  • XML
  • CSV
  • PPT
2.    Digitizing Old Documents

Handwritten and typed-out records used to be the norm until about 30 years ago, but with the technological age’s advancement, documents are now stored digitally instead. Old organizations and companies have lots of old records that are still in print format.

To migrate them into a digital version would require the manual typing of each and every one. That can be very difficult and time-taking.

But with OCR technology, you only need to take a picture or scan the documents and all the text will be extracted into a digital form.

This task can be automated through a bit of clever programming and scripting to make it even more effortless.  Old documents that need to be digitized are:

  • Sales Records
  • NDAs
  • Operating agreement LLC
  • Business reports
  • Partnership agreements
3.   Translating Foreign Languages in Pictures

Tourism is quite a huge industry and people frequently travel to other countries for either business purposes or recreational ones. While tour guides are very effective at bridging the language gap, they are unable to stay with their guests all the time.

In these cases when the tourists are out on their own, they can use an OCR application that can automatically translate any text that they point their phone camera at. A great example of this tool is the Google lens which can translate text in real-time.

A picture to text converter paired with a translator can be used to read the signs and instructions on the roads and in the shops.

4.   Text to Speech

We have all heard of text-to-speech applications. They can ‘read’ the text that is written somewhere and then they play it out loud.

This is a very accessibility-friendly application of OCR that is especially helpful to visually-impaired people. Test-to-speech utilizes OCR to extract text from an image or a file. That text is then read out loud on the device’s speakers/headphones.

A great application of text-to-speech is for learning purposes. People who are learning a new language can use text-to-speech for hearing the correct pronunciations for whatever they are reading in the foreign language.

Many institutes that help people prepare for language proficiency tests use listening exercises that utilize text-to-speech to teach students.

Text to speech can also be used for:

  • “Speaking” a foreign language.
  • Giving/receiving directions from Map applications and GPS.
5.    Traffic Monitoring Systems

OCR is used in monitoring traffic. It is quite common in the USA that junctions have a camera monitoring people so that they don’t violate the rules.

The system works such that rule violators are recorded by the cameras and OCR is used to read their vehicle number plates. The plates are then searched and matched against a database to identify the registered owner of that vehicle. Once identification is complete, the fine challan is sent directly to the offender’s address.

Another usage of OCR in traffic monitoring systems is to identify illegal number plates. In the USA, a huge database is maintained that has records of every vehicle that is registered.

That database also contains information on vehicles that have been stolen, gone missing, or were reportedly used in a crime. Security cameras on the roads and checkpoints can identify such plates using OCR and the security system warns the nearest police precinct about the sighting of such number plates.

6.    Automated Exams

Some of the largest examinations that occur on the planet are GCSE and IGCSE. These examinations are held in many countries including Britain. The answer papers for these exams are all collected from each country and then sent to the checkers who are not always in Britain.

Cambridge assessments is the company responsible for running the entire operation and they have devised a system to efficiently send the physical papers to the checkers online.

Previously, it was normal to manually scan each physical paper and then sort them before sending them to the checkers. This was costly and time-consuming as it required a lot of manpower.

The system has now been automated. Using OCR, each paper is converted to a digital format that is easy for checkers to mark. The digital paper is then sorted by another algorithm and then each sorted stack is sent to the related checker.

This has saved them both time and resources which can be better spent elsewhere.

7.    Document Verification

Various places in the world require you to verify your documents for security purposes. Banks, airports, and government systems need to validate documents so that they can make sure that no kind of fraud takes place.

Identity theft is a real thing and can happen to anyone. Hence, personal security is very important. Organizations have also taken steps to ensure that their customer’s information is safe and cannot be used for fraud.

Document verification is an important part of this security. OCR is used to quickly scan physical documents into a digital format which can be automatically checked by a computer.

Digital checking is much faster and more accurate than manual checking and this can easily identify any mismatches or suspicious points in a document.

Due to OCR, this process is made much faster. The other way to do this is to transcribe the documents manually; which is a very time-consuming task.

Documents that need to be verified are:

  • Identification documents
  • Travel documents such as a Visa
  • Tickets
8.    Self-Driving Vehicles

Self-driving vehicles are still pretty much experimental at this stage and they have not been commercialized yet.

The technologies used in these vehicles to ‘see’ their surroundings are pretty varied.  They use satellite navigation to read maps and follow them. They have a terrain mapping device that allows them to see the road and other vehicles. And they have OCR to read traffic signs.

Sat-nav is pretty accurate but the last minor adjustments still need to be done manually. Self-driving cars use a sat-nav to get to the general location and then use OCR to read the traffic signs to get to the specific location.

Sometimes the sat-nav can be inaccurate because a route it is showing might be recently blocked due to construction or repair work. In that case, a self-driving car can read the warning signs and choose an alternate route.


OCR is a great technology that has made many tasks easier. Automation of document workflow is possible due to OCR.

We looked at various real-world use cases in which OCR is used.  It can be used for converting non-editable document formats such as PDF into an editable format.

It is used for converting old physical records into a digital format. It is used in real-time translating software to translate signs and pictures that are in foreign languages.

It’s utilized in the text-to-speech software that can be used for aids for the visually impaired.

It has found some applications in traffic monitoring systems and automated exams. We saw that document verification and security systems use OCR to validate documents so that they can detect any forgeries in them.