A Pen That Reads — And Speaks

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted May 26, 2005

Hand scanners like the IRISPen Executive from IRIS that let you copy text from paper to computer one line or a few lines at a time have been around for more than a decade. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology for translating scanned text into editable computer text has been around as long. So what can a new product like the IRISPen Executive bring to the table? It talks.

Seriously. You plug the IRISPen into a USB port on your computer, drag its scanning tip over a line of text, and when you lift it from the page, software on your PC or Mac automatically recognizes the characters you scanned and reads back the resulting text through the computer's speakers in one of several pleasant, fairly realistic-sounding machine voices.

Why Would I Need That?
When you're scanning with a hand scanner, in order to get a good, accurate scan, you need to keep your head down and concentrate on what you're doing — drag the scanner tip in a straight line and at an even speed, not too fast, not too slow.

The "auditive" feedback — as the product documentation calls it — saves you from having to look up at the computer screen to check the OCR results after each line. If the pen reads back gibberish, you know you'd better go back and scan that line again.

It may strike some people, as it did me, that this whole vocal premise isn't exactly a glowing recommendation of the basic scanning and OCR technology, and that it's at odds with the maker's claim that the product is "incredible accurate [sic]."

In fairness though, the IRISPen also differentiates itself from competing products by being able to scan and OCR text in grayscale documents. And the Executive upgrade adds some other useful refinements besides the text-to-speech function. It scans and OCRs bar codes, and hand-written and dot matrix text, which most OCR programs cannot. And it can scan a few lines of text at a time rather than just one.

You can upgrade any IRISPen to Executive capability by upgrading the PC (or Mac) software — the hardware is not new. And, if you work with foreign languages, you can add an automatic translation feature by performing yet another software upgrade. You scan text in one language, and the product reads back an instant translation.

On paper, the technology in this product is impressive, but as with other technologies that use artificial intelligence and predictive techniques — hand writing recognition and speech recognition are other examples — you must learn and practice before the product delivers the advertised results.

For people who frequently need to capture relatively short chunks of text from hard copy, it may be worth developing the skills. For most others, it's probably not.

The Installation Experience
The IRISPen installs easily. As with most USB products, you install the software first, then plug in the device. I had it up and running within 20 minutes.

The documentation, however, is not one of this product's strengths. For starters, the unit I received for review was an IRISPen, while the manual was for the IRISPenII, which is a slightly different product. The text is almost certainly translated from French — the company is French — by a non-English speaking person. The result is a positively chatty book — at times irritatingly indirect — that's not particularly well-organized.

The device itself is about the size of a long thin chocolate bar — 5 x 1.41 x 0.94 inches — and weighs just under four ounces. The company recommends that you hold it like a pen or pencil, which you can do quite comfortably despite it being considerably bigger than even the largest pen.

At the business end, there's the half-inch wide scanner and a roller that also acts as an on-off switch. When you press the roller down on the page, it turns the device on. Lift it off the page and the scanner switches off. Guide marks on the top surface help you drag the tip in a straight line.


 IRISPen Executive
Scan and Talk — The IrisPen Executive literally reads back what you've scanned, but this cool feature can't overcome speed and performance issues.

The pen I received has three buttons on it, although the manual — for the wrong product, remember — only mentions one of them. You can program two of the buttons — the one on the top surface and another on the side — to perform an action when you single or double-click a buttton — i.e., move the cursor, input a space, tab or enter character, change the reading mode or enable dot matrix OCR mode. The third button is a slider switch on the top surface. We're still not sure what it does.

The Software Experience
The IRISPen Executive software lets you set the reading mode based on the type of material you're scanning — alphanumeric, numeric, bar code, handwritten or grayscale. You can also select the language. The product can be set up to recognize any of 55 languages, including some fairly obscure ones such as Albanian, Catalan and Irish Gaelic.

You also use the software to set the output mode. The program can either send the OCRed text to the clipboard or into an open application such as Word or Wordpad. With multi-line output mode, the pen holds several scanned lines in memory until you click the top pen button to output them to the clipboard or application.

Finally, the software lets you choose a voice for the text-to-speech feature. There are 12 altogether, including the rather riduiculously named Eager Eddie, Deep Douglas and Grandpa Amos. Each voice is slightly different but perfectly intelligible.

The Personal Experience
The appearance of the scanned text, which shows up in a separate PC window as you scan, is revealing. Unlike flat-bed and sheet-feed scanners, which produce more or less perfect copies, scanned text from the IRISPen almost always appears wavy and bowed. This is because it's almost impossible to move the scanner in a perfectly straight line along the line of text. Given the poor quality of the scan, it's amazing that the I.R.I.S. OCR technology can recognize characters at all.

When I first started using the IRISPen, the OCR error rate was much too high for it to be a useful tool. It was rare for a line to be error-free. With practice, and when I made sure the page I was scanning was perfectly flat and smooth and I concentrated on dragging the scanner in a straight line, I was able to improve the accuracy. Further practice might improve it to the point of making this a reliable method of capturing text, but I doubt it will ever be as accurate as OCR output from a sheet-feed or flat-bed scan.

The text-to-speech function is alternately impressive and hilarious. When it reads a line of text correctly, it seems magical. It can even correctly interpret numbers, fractions, punctuation, homonyms and special characters (such as dollar signs, abbreviations and acronyms) and read them back the way a human would. But when, as is more often the case, it reads back partly intelligible, partly garbled text, it's simply draws attention to the technology's shortcomings.

Since correcting errors in OCRed text is time consuming, one wonders if it wouldn't be faster in many cases to simply type. The company claims you can move the scanner at up to 3.15 inches per second, and that it can recognize up to 1,000 characters per second. In my experience, the faster you scanned, the more errors appeared — though with practice it might be possible to scan at full speed and optimum accuracy. Still, if you're a fast touch typist, chances are you can type it almost as fast as you can scan and OCR it with this product.

Bottom line: Unless you're a very slow typist who regularly needs to capture small chunks of text from paper documents, give this product a pass.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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