Taking ZoomReader for a Test Drive

by Maurie Hill on July 1, 2011

One of the signs up in the Seven Foot Knoll LighthouseI finally had the opportunity to test drive the ZoomReader app for the iPhone 4.  I was looking to see the different sorts of situations where it could lend a hand in my visually challenging world.  If you don’t know already, ZoomReader is an app that speaks printed material by using the 5 megapixel camera on the iPhone to take an image of printed material and then reads that text aloud.  It’s perfect for those of us who find it impossible to read normally sized text with our own two eyes.

To try it out, I first became familiar with both the iPhone and then the ZoomReader app. I turned on Voiceover, Apple’s built-in screen reading feature.  Though the iPhone’s screen is much smaller than the one on my iPad, the ZoomReader icon was distinguishable and like the iPad, all I have to do is slide my finger and VoiceOver tells me the name of the app.  After opening ZoomReader, I continued to let Voiceover help me familiarize myself with the layout of ZoomReader and its options.

Then I gathered up a bunch of printed materials – newsletters, brochures, restaurant menus, newspapers, and recipe books from different sources with a variety of colors, contrast, text styles and sizes.  Some of them were even under glass or plastic sheets.  I already knew that ZoomReader could read document that were in standard black text on plain white paper impressively and accurately, but I wanted to see where else it could be used – as you know, real life situations are rarely perfect.

We are faced with a potpourri of documents and printed text all of the time.  This is beyond our control, so I decided to make the best of what is in my control – taking the best possible photo I could of the text.  I never used the recommended Viewbase iPhone stand because normally I’ll be in situations where freehand will be my only option.  That said, I do think it would be really useful if I was primarily using ZoomReader at my desk.  With my free hand, I could hold the phone steady and parallel to the document without having to be perfect. My vision is good enough to see where the text is on the page even though I can’t read it – this makes it possible for me to frame up the photo.

Knowing the limits of OCR, I realized that the material I was testing was challenging, but I found that it worked on many different font styles and color combinations, even those that I didn’t expect it to work on.  And it read columns in their proper order!  Sometimes I’d get erroneous text at the top of the document, perhaps from a large indiscernible heading, but after scrolling past that, the text was extremely accurate more often than not.  Restaurant menus were the most unpredictable because of some over-the-top exotic fonts and erratic formatting.  Some recipe books worked well and some just O.K. but that said, it worked great on a wide variety of the materials I had gathered.

The other surprise I had while using ZoomReader is that after OCR extraction, I had the option of letting ZoomReader’s included Nuance voice continuously read the text to me or have VoiceOver read it object by object.  For example, if the document was comprised of a list of instructions, I would choose VoiceOver because with just a flick of my finger on the screen, it would read me the next step.  It’s nice to have the choice of continuous reading by Nuance or line-by-line reading with VoiceOver.  The Nuance voice sounds the best at ZoomReader’s default speech rate since its pitch increases as you increase the rate.

As I was experimenting, I discovered that if I brought my headphones along, I could use ZoomReader in public places to avoid bothering others.  When I was at home or work, ZoomReader allows me to go do other tasks while listening to the printed world instead of trying to read it visually.

Before my trip to Europe, I picked up a book about Torun, a city I would be visiting in Poland.  Unfortunately, the book’s dimensions were way too large to comfortably use under my CCTV.  However, in using ZoomReader, I was able to learn about Torun’s fascinating history while lying in bed and resting my eyes for the upcoming trip. Despite the column headings, ZoomReader’s OCR read it beautifully.  This is a book that I would have otherwise had to pass up.  I can see where this app could be really useful while traveling.

The company iPhone had previous engagements so I was not able to take it to Europe but Becca brought it to the Visions 2011 conference we attended in Baltimore.  While roaming the inner harbor, we went into the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse and tested ZoomReader on the museum signage.  As you can see from the image above, the text was on top of a very busy background so I was not expecting good results.  Once again, I was surprised that the OCR was able to handle it very well so I, too, could learn the history of this lighthouse – a topic that is very close to my heart as my grandfather and great grandfather were both lighthouse-keepers along the Northeast coast.

Even though I work for Ai Squared, the makers of ZoomReader, I’m actually more critical of our own products.  My intent here is to describe how I used ZoomReader so that you can figure out if it could benefit you also.  I don’t own an iPhone but my current cell phone battery needs replacing and my digital camera lens keeps grinding as it goes in and out.  If I replace these with an iPhone, then I’ll be able to add ZoomReader as a weapon against the print-laden world and give my eyes a break.

  • Cathy

    Great article Maurie.

  • Elaine Murray

    This sounds like a winner.  It is so thoughtful of Maurie to take her time to do consumer research for us.  I am a senior senior but might  try it out to lighten up my life.  elaine m.

  • Maurie Hill

    Thanks Elaine,
    It’s my pleasure – my home and work life are kind of blurred together due to my vision impairment and my occupation.

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