A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from St. Louis University law professor Nicolas Terry asking if I had tried out an app called Prizmo. I had not heard of it, so I contacted the Belgian developer, Creaceed, and the company sent me a free review copy. I've now had a chance to try it, and I'm very impressed. The app allows you to take a picture of a document with your iPhone, then the app uses an OCR (optical character recognition) process to read all of the words in the scan and give you the plain text, then the app lets you do all sorts of useful things with the text that it has read. This is an app that a lot of lawyers are going to want to have on their iPhones.
To scan a document, start the app and tap the Text button. For example, I opened up my Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure book and found the article pertaining to dismissal or settlement of a class action and snapped a picture with the app. (Or if you have already taken a picture, you can access any image in your Photos library.) The app then gives you lots of options to prepare the image for OCR. You can crop to select the relevant portion of the image, rotate the image, adjust the perspective, or tap on a portion of the image that should be white to enhance the contrast between black and white.
When your image is prepared, tap the Next button and the app will scan the text, accompanied by an amusing graphic of a scanner going down the document as if it is reading it during the OCR process. The app then shows you the text, which you can edit. OCR is never perfect on any computer, let alone on an iPhone, but with decent quality scans I found that this app did a very good job.
After you are finished with your edits, the app shows you the text and gives you a bunch of options for what you can do next.
The first option is to have the app read the text out loud. The app doesn't come with built in voices, but instead lets you buy up to 35 different male and female voices for many different languages for $2.99 each. The quality of the voices is quite good, and after you have installed one, the app can perform a text-to-speech to read you your document. Another option is to copy the document, which you can do either by selecting some of the text and using the normal iPhone copy function, or if you want to copy all of the text to the clipboard just tap the copy button. You can also tap the mail button to send either the image that you scanned or the text from the image to an e-mail message. You can also send the app to a file depository on the Internet (DropBox or CloudApp). You can also save the original or the processed image to the Photos app on the iPhone. And finally, you can tap the Translate button to have the app use Google Translation services to translate the text into one of ten different languages. For example, here is what Article 594 of the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure looks like in French.
Notwithstanding Louisiana's civil law traditions and connection to the French Civil Code, that probably isn't very useful. But perhaps if you were in a foreign country in a restaurant that had Wi-Fi, it would be helpful to scan a menu in French or German or Spanish and then translate it into English. (The internet connection is necessary so that the app can have Google Translation Services translate the text; the OCR process occurs on the app itself without the need for any internet connection.)
If all this app did was OCR documents and let you do lots of different things with the resulting text, that would be useful enough, but that is just the beginning. I've only described the steps that happen after you tap the first button on the main screen of the app, and there are many other options.
The Business Card option allows you to scan a business card, and then the app turns the text into entries of a Contact. The app takes a guess at what to do with names and numbers, but in many cases you will have to go in and adjust the field or, in some cases, adjust the text if the OCR process or the app made mistakes. For example, when I scanned my business card, the app put "New Orleans, LA" all in the City field instead of putting "LA" in the state field.
When you are finished with the fields, the app gives you buttons to do various things such as add the person to your Contacts on the iPhone or e-mail a vCard. It takes some time to get all of the text assigned to the correct fields, but I have to admit that this is probably faster than typing in all of the data from a business card on your own.
I did not try out the Bill feature, but I understand that it lets you scan a bill, OCR and interpret it (detecting labels, prices and tax), split up the bill among different people (assigning the different food items to the different people at your table) and figure out the tip. I doubt I would ever use this feature in real life, but if you are eating with a group of people who want to be exact and have Joe pay more because he had two egg rolls whereas Bob only had one, then this is the button on the app for you. I also did not try out the Whiteboard feature, which lets you take a picture of a whiteboard and work with the information.
The Reader function works if you have purchased a voice for the app. You can paste any text into the app (or by default it uses the text from your last scan) and then have the app read to you. For international travelers, it might be useful if the app let you paste a block of English text, then translate it to a foreign language, and then read that out loud using a foreign language voice. For now, you can access the Google Translate website and translate your text there, and then paste the translated text into this app and have the app read it out loud if you need this function (assuming that you have purchased a foreign language voice).
Finally, the Documents part of the app allows you to access previous scans and work with them again. By default the app shows you a portion of the scanned document, but tap once on any image to instead see the beginning of the OCR text.
There are a few features that I would like to see added to this app. First, I wish the app could work with PDF files. Many of the scans that I receive are in PDF format, but this app can only work with JPG images. I tried to get around this limitation by displaying a PDF on my iPhone screen and then taking a screen shot, and then working with the resulting image that was saved to my Photos library, but the quality wasn't very good because the text was so small when I displayed an entire document on the iPhone screen, and thus the OCR had too many errors. Also, I don't see a way to handle documents that are more than one page long. The app handles each scan of a page as a separate file. It would be nice to be able to combine multiple images into one large file. Additionally, I wish that there was a way to get a document into the app using third party services such as DropBox or CloudApp. Right now, the app only lets you take a new picture or select a picture from Photos on the iPhone. In other words, you can save a scanned document to DropBox or CloudApp, but you cannot receive a document from those services.
To be fair, though, I hate to complain too much about missing features because it is stunning how much is packed into this one app. This developer clearly has put a lot of thought into what you might want to do once you OCR a document. And the developer knows quite a bit about OCR, having sold a Macintosh version of Prizmo for some time now. The field of law is becoming more paperless every day, and with an app like this you can move more of your physical documents into a digital form that can be more easily used. This is a useful app to add to your iPhone toolbox. (And thanks to Prof. Terry for bringing it to my attention!)