OCR (optical character recognition) is old-school technology. In computing years, it’s Hey Boomer. Way back in 1975, Wild Cherry was about to announce the dawn of disco with Play That Funky Music, and Ray Kurzweil shipped the first commercial OCR system, a computer program that could recognize printed text in many fonts. A true humanist, Ray decided the best application would be to create a reading machine for blind people by having a computer read-aloud stories and articles to them. The device also required that Ray invent another technology – the CCD flatbed scanner. Thus was born document imaging which evolved into the multi-billion dollar industry we know today. (Side note: in the late 1980s at my first high-tech job I sold a version of this – pictured above – for $3,995. This one-trick pony did a decent job with a perfectly scanned image from a laser-printed document, but Anthony Macciola and Kofax had not yet invented VRS so it hung on anything less than ideal.)
After nearly 50 years of (mainly) incremental tinkering and improvement, OCR seems it should be old news for cognitive capture followers. Not so. OCR must have found and imbibed the mythical fountain of youth that eluded poor Ponce de Leon, because it is more energetic and relevant today than ever before. OCR has evolved into a ubiquitous commodity showing up in the coolest places these days.
Today an Australian start-up named OCR Labs announced a $15 million Series A raise to expand its ID verification platform into the EU, the UK and Turkey. Founded in 2018, the company describes its platform as built on “five proprietary technologies in one solution, including identity document optical character recognition (OCR), document fraud assessment, liveness detection, video fraud assessment, and face matching”. Yes, you read that right: a hot start-up is touting OCR as a key pillar of their innovative solution.
In perhaps the ultimate cool endorsement, last week at WWDC Apple announced optical character recognition will be embedded in iOS 15. Named LiveText OCR and to be found in the Camera app, Apple describes it as “secure on-device intelligence to help you discover more in your photos, quickly find what you’re looking for, and relive special moments.” LiveText will understand seven languages for starters.
True, Apple is a bit late to the game as OCR apps have been on smartphones for years and part of computing operating systems for even longer. But Apple never wastes precious space on the iPhone so we can surmise that OCR fits into some money-making strategy and we’ll likely see clever innovations using OCR in future iterations.
Perhaps Apple plans to offer its own proprietary full stack for ID verification someday. This could be good news for OCR Labs, validating its full stack approach, or it could very well be the first wisp of storm clouds on the far horizon. Either way we are excited to watch as OCR proves the old adage that old dogs can learn new tricks. Long live OCR!