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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 6

Product Evaluation

Simply Out Scanning: A Review of SARA and ScannaR

AccessWorld has periodically published articles that have reviewed the latest versions of the popular optical character recognition (OCR) software products Kurzweil 1000 and OpenBook, the latest article appearing in the September 2004 issue. This time, we review the Scanning and Reading Appliance (the SARA) from Freedom Scientific and the ScannaR from HumanWare, two stand-alone hardware systems that come out of the box ready to scan and read printed material without having to install software or connect to a computer. These systems do not have additional features, such as e-mail and Internet access, that are found in the OpenBook and Kurzweil products. Rather, they are designed with simplicity in mind. They are marketed for a user who would like an easy way to access print material and who perhaps does not have a great deal of computer experience or skills.

Speed and Accuracy

To determine print-recognition accuracy and scanning speed, we used methods similar to those used in our September 2004 review of Kurzweil 1000 and OpenBook. We used a variety of text styles and formats. For a simple test, we printed a sample of 12-point black text on white paper using the Arial and Times New Roman fonts. For more advanced scanning, we tested a 6-point font, and we also tested business cards, multicolumn newspaper print, and brochures and magazines that were printed on colored paper with photographs mixed in with the text. Testing was done on both machines, with the ScannaR in Easy mode.

The SARA

Measuring approximately 20 inches long by 11.75 inches wide by 4 inches high and weighing approximately 18 pounds, the SARA looks similar to an off-the-shelf scanner that one may purchase to use with Kurzweil or OpenBook. However, it is much heavier because all the computer processing is built in to the unit itself, eliminating the need to attach it to a computer. The unit is dark gray. If you place it in front of you with the control buttons facing you, the scanner lid opens from the front and is hinged in the back. Lifting the lid reveals an 8.75-inch by 11.75-inch glass scanner bed. The back panel has a number of ports and connections similar to those that one would find on the back of a computer, but the only ones that would normally be used would be the power adapter jack and the ports that are used to connect an optional monitor.

Photo of the SARA.

Caption: The SARA has big, colorful buttons.

The majority of the buttons on the SARA are big and colorful, with tactile shapes that differentiate one from another. The control panel juts out a bit from the bottom front of the unit and has control buttons on its front facing the user and on its top facing the ceiling. Moving from left to right on the front panel, the first button is a round green On/Off button with a raised tactile marking of a white circle with a vertical line through it, the universal symbol for power. Next is an orange Volume rocker switch with a raised tactile white horn symbol. The next four buttons are round gray buttons with no label or tactile markings; these are the File button, Erase Page button, Language button, and Scanning Mode button. The last button on the front panel is an orange rocker switch with a raised tactile image of a white rabbit, and it is used to control the speed of the voice output. To the right of that last control is a headphone jack.

On the left of the top panel, there is an oval green Read key with a raised white tactile image of a triangle with two vertical lines, and behind that button is an oval red Scan key with a raised circle on it. To the right of these buttons is a pattern of seven buttons that are used to navigate around a document and through the menu system. Each of these buttons is blue with raised tactile markings that are white. In the center is a round Selector key with a raised white center. Surrounding this key are four arrow keys pointing up, down, left, and right, and they each have a raised line outlining the edge of the arrow. Farther to the left and to the right are the Rewind and Fast Forward buttons, which are marked by two raised lines on the arrows' edges. To the right of the Fast Forward button is a yellow Help button with a white raised question mark symbol. The last button on the far right side of the panel is a square brown Menu button with raised white horizontal lines. On the front panel of the unit above the control panel are two speakers with a built-in microphone to the right. Between the speakers is a CD drive with a red Eject button beside it. The CD drive is used to read files that you have on a CD-ROM; the SARA will read files in .ark, .txt, and .rtf formats.

The SARA uses the OmniPage OCR engine and the RealSpeak speech synthesis software, both produced by Scansoft. It can be attached via the serial port to a monitor or television screen for visual output. The SARA is able to store hundreds of thousands of pages. It can be set to speak in 13 languages, all of which are Western European or North or South American (U.S. English, British English, Danish, Dutch, Belgian Dutch, French, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Norwegian, Castilian Spanish, Latin American Spanish, and Swedish).

Setting Up and Controlling

The SARA is simple to set up even for those who have no technical experience. Once the product is unpacked, place it on a desktop or table top, plug the AC adapter into its jack on the rear port, and press the On/Off button located on the left side of the front panel. After about 10 seconds, a welcome message is spoken, and you are ready to begin scanning. To get a verbal description of what each button does, you can press the Help button to enter the Help mode. After you enter this mode, you can press each button to hear a description of its function. You press the Help button again to exit this mode. Once your document has been placed face-down on the scanning surface, all you need to do is hit the Scan key. After scanning and recognizing the text, the SARA will automatically start reading.

Photo of a woman placing a page on the SARA's scanning surface.

Caption: Positioning a document for the SARA to scan.

There are many ways to control the way that the SARA reads and to navigate through a document: The green Read key will stop or start reading; the Language key toggles between the various languages that are available; the Up and Down arrows move up or down a line at a time; the Right and Left arrows move left or right a word at a time; the Rewind and Fast forward keys move a page at a time; the Erase key erases the current page; and the File key moves you between files to read if you have more than one file open at a time. The Scanning Mode key toggles the SARA between a mode that recognizes and divides columns of text and a mode that ignores columns.

For those who are interested in the more advanced features, the menu system will allow you to access much more of the SARA's functionality. Pressing the Menu key takes you into a list of menus, and the SARA says, "File," the first menu. The Down arrow key scrolls you through the various menus, which include File, Voice Settings, Scanning Options, Visual Settings, and Double Arrow Movement. When you find the menu that you want, you press the Selector button or the right arrow to move to a list of its submenus. You can now arrow through that list and press the Selector button to choose the item that you want.

For example, if the document you happen to be scanning is a favorite book or newspaper article and there just is not enough time to read it right then, all you need to do is save the file and come back to it later. To save a file, you press the Menu key, and when "file" is spoken, you press the Right arrow to access the list of items in the File menu. Then, you press the Down arrow to scroll through the list of items, which includes New Document, Open Document, Open from CD, Close, Save, and Delete. When you hear "save," you press the Selector button. Since there is no keyboard to type in a file name, the SARA prompts you to use your own voice to speak the name you wish to give the file. To open the file and read it at a later time, you follow the same process to access the file menu and select the Open Document option this time. You are now in a list of files, and you hear your own voice read the names of the files as you scroll through the items with the down and up arrows. You then press Select when you hear the name of the file that you want to open.

The menus other than File are used to configure the SARA to perform the way you would like. The Voice Settings menu has items that allow you to adjust the speech rate and to choose the languages that are enabled on the SARA. It also has an item that allows you to choose from three available voices, one male and two female. The Scanning Options menu simply allows you to set the scanner either to recognize or to ignore columns, just like the Scanning Mode key discussed earlier. The Visual Settings menu is used if you have connected a monitor to the SARA, and it allows you to adjust the text font, text size, color, and spacing characteristics of the visual display. The Double Arrow Movement menu allows you to set the way you move through a document when pressing the Rewind and Fast Forward keys. The movement can be set to page, paragraph, or sentence.

Documentation

Users of the SARA will find an audiocassette of the user's manual, as well as a file saved on the unit itself in rich text format. You can also find a downloadable text file on Freedom Scientific's web site. The documentation is straightforward and gives a good description of the SARA's features and how to use them. It also describes the layout of the machine's ports and control buttons.

How Does SARA Scan?

Straight Text

The SARA averaged just under 35 seconds to scan and recognize plain text documents in a 12-point font size and usually made no recognition errors, except when reading the addresses of web sites. Similar results were obtained when reading documents that were printed in a 6-point font.

Color and Photographs

The SARA averaged just under 45 seconds to recognize the text on colored magazine pages with photographs. It did a good job of ignoring the photographs and was accurate; it made about one recognition error per page.

The SARA did not do well with a color brochure with photographs and text in 16-point font. It averaged about 47 seconds, but reported that the page was blank.

Currency

We tested the SARA with various U.S. currency bills, and it was not able to recognize any currency.

Business Cards

The SARA averaged about 40 seconds to scan and read business cards and did well, making no recognition errors, even on web addresses and e-mail addresses.

Newspaper Columns

After we set the SARA to divide columns, it took about 40 seconds to scan and recognize a newspaper with three columns in a 12-point font, and it made about one mistake every other sentence.

The ScannaR

The ScannaR Measures 18.5 inches long by 12.75 inches wide by 3.5 inches high and weighs approximately 15 pounds. It looks similar to but weighs more than a conventional off-the-shelf scanner. The unit is off-white in color, and if you place it in front of you with the control buttons facing you, the scanner lid opens from the front and is hinged in the back. Lifting the lid reveals an 8.75-inch by 12-inch glass scanner bed. The back panel has many of the similar ports and connections that one would find on the back of a computer, but the manufacturer has chosen to cover these ports with the scanner's housing. The only ones left exposed are the power adapter jack and the serial port, which is used to connect the ScannaR to a BrailleNote or VoiceNote personal digital assistant for saving scanned files to those devices.

Photo of the ScannaR.

Caption: The ScannaR features protruding buttons with raised black borders.

The ScannaR's silver control panel is on the front panel facing you. It features six black-and-white buttons, two black-and-white knobs, a headphone jack, a condenser microphone, and a speaker. The six round black control buttons protrude about a quarter-inch from the panel and are encased in raised black borders with tactilely identifiable shapes to differentiate one from another. Each button, including its border, is roughly an inch wide and an inch high.

Moving from left to right along the control panel, the first button is the On/Off button, encased in a border that has a flat bottom and a rounded top, and it has a white print label showing a circle with a line on top. Next is the headphone jack labeled with a black print image of a headphone, followed by the condenser microphone and the round audio speaker. To the right of the speaker are the two round black rotary knobs, which have a white print circle along their edges. They are arranged one above the other, with the top knob being used to adjust the volume and the bottom knob being used to adjust the rate of the speech output. To the right of those knobs is the Scan button, encased in a triangle border pointing to the right, with a white triangle label. Next is the Pause button, encased in a round border labeled with two white vertical lines. To the right of the Pause button are the up and down arrow keys, encased in triangular borders with the top one pointing up and the bottom one pointing down. Their print labels are white triangles that also point up and down, with a horizontal line above the top one and below the bottom one. Finally, the last button, on the far right of the control panel, is the Repeat button, encased in a square border with a white square print label.

The ScannaR uses the Abby Fine Reader OCR engine that is available with the Kurzweil 1000 software, and users can choose between the AT&T Speech engine, Microsoft Speech, RealSpeak, or IBM Via Voice for synthesized speech output. Users can choose from five languages: English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and the ScannaR is able to connect to BrailleNote or VoiceNote to save files on those devices for future reading.

The ScannaR has two modes of operation, Easy and Advanced. Easy mode is used for the basic functions of scanning and reading and is designed for people with little or no prior computer experience. Advanced mode is for more savvy users who want more functionality in their reading machine. In this mode, users have the ability to save files, and they have much more latitude to configure the way the ScannaR performs.

Setting Up and Controlling

The ScannaR is in Easy mode when you turn it on for the first time, and it is simple to set up and use. After connecting the power adapter to its jack on the back of the unit and plugging it into an electrical outlet, you press the On/Off key. After about a minute, the ScannaR speaks a welcome message, and you are ready to scan and read. Pressing and holding the On/Off button until you hear a double beep turns the unit off. But if you just press and release the On/Off key, you will hear a description of all the keys and their functions. Once your document has been placed face-down on the scanning surface, all you need to do is hit the Scan key. After scanning and recognizing the text, ScannaR will automatically start reading.

Photo of a woman placing a page on the ScannaR's scanning surface.

Caption: Positioning a document for the ScannaR to scan.

The ScannaR's Easy mode is fairly limited as far as controlling the way it reads. After scanning a page, it reads the page from top to bottom. You can pause and restart speech with the Pause button, and the Up and Down arrow keys move the text forward or back a word at a time. Holding down the Pause key while pressing the Up or Down arrow key moves forward or back a paragraph at a time, and the Read key reads the current word. Pressing the Read key a second time spells the current word. The ScannaR can have only one page of text in memory at a time in Easy mode, so when a new page is scanned, the previous page is no longer available to read. If you want to scan multipage files or save files to read at a later time, you have to use the Advanced mode.

Advanced Mode

Those who want to use the ScannaR's advanced mode need to contact technical support at HumanWare because the instructions are not on the documentation that comes with the product. This mode has a menu system that allows such actions as saving, opening, and deleting files. It also allows you to set bookmarks in files and provides more robust navigation methods than does Easy mode. Advanced mode also lets you choose from several reading voices and lets you switch between the various reading languages that are available. It also has scanner settings for adjusting column recognition, brightness, contrast, image type, and resolution. Connecting to a BrailleNote or VoiceNote and saving files on those devices is also covered in Advanced mode. The ScannaR can save as many as 500,000 pages on its hard drive in this mode, a considerable amount of room for saving a great number of books.

Documentation

Included in the package were a large-print manual and a large-print chart describing what the key functions are. There is also a short audio CD available from HumanWare, but it was not included in the shipping of the product. The CD lasts approximately 5 to 10 minutes and gives a brief description of how to set up the ScannaR, a description of the control buttons, and a telephone number for technical support if there are any problems. A more advanced user's guide for learning how to use the Advanced mode is available from HumanWare technical support, and it is in a .txt format.

How Does ScannaR Scan?

Straight Text

The ScannaR averaged just under 40 seconds to scan and recognize plain text documents in a 12-point font and usually made no errors, even for web site addresses. The same results were seen for the ScannaR when reading documents printed in 6-point font.

Color and Photographs

The ScannaR averaged 40 seconds to read colored magazine pages with photographs. It did a good job of ignoring the photograph, and it was accurate; it made about two errors per page.

The ScannaR did not do well with the color brochure with photographs and text in 16-point font. It averaged about 35 seconds per scan, and although it did recognize some text, the text mainly came out as gibberish.

Currency

We tested the ScannaR with various U.S. currency bills. It was not able to recognize any currency.

Business Cards

The ScannaR averaged about 40 seconds to scan and read business cards, and it did well, making no recognition errors, even on web addresses and e-mail addresses.

Newspaper Columns

The ScannaR recognizes columns by default in Easy mode, and it averaged about 44 seconds to scan and recognize. It was slightly more accurate than the SARA on newspaper pages three columns in a 12-point font, averaging about one mistake every third sentence.

The Bottom Line

Both these reading systems are certainly easy to use and do not require any prior computer experience for a person to use them without assistance. They both have keys that are simple to identify and use, and both provide good verbal prompts during the scanning and reading process. In addition, they are both accurate, performing as well as the Kurzweil and Open Book products do.

The SARA includes more functionality out of the box, but after getting HumanWare technical support to set the ScannaR to Advanced mode, we found that it has similar capabilities. Both Freedom Scientific and HumanWare representatives have told us that their products are aimed at beginners without a lot of prior technical experience, such as, say, an elderly person who is just beginning to experience vision loss. Either of these systems would be appropriate for this kind of a person. Both systems are equally easy when doing basic scanning and reading. The ScannaR would be slightly easier for a raw beginner to use right out of the box because there are fewer keys to learn, but it was easier to navigate around a document with the SARA. The SARA was a bit easier and more straightforward when working with the more advanced processes because the keystroke commands were more intuitive, and there were some fairly complicated keystroke combinations to learn when using ScannaR's Advanced mode.

In short, we would have no problem recommending either of these products for a person who is interested only in basic scanning and reading. For people who are interested in all the advanced features of scanning and reading and have more technical skills, we would recommend investigating the Kurzweil or OpenBook products. Those products, even with the added cost of a computer and a scanner, are less expensive than these stand-alone products.

Manufacturers' Comments

Freedom Scientific

"Thank you for your review of the SARA. Since your evaluation, Freedom Scientific has issued the 7.5 update for the SARA. This update will be sent on CD to existing customers who can install it easily by simply pressing the Menu key and selecting 'Update from CD' in the File menu.

In regard to your test results, we have not yet implemented Currency Recognition. It is planned for a future update that will be distributed on CD. The results will always be better with the scanner lid closed, especially with glossy material like the color brochure you tested or thin material like newspaper, where bleed-through of the text from the other side can impact OCR accuracy.

The 7.5 update includes the following features:

  • The new RealSpeak® Solo speech synthesizer provides even higher-quality speech in 18 languages.
  • The SARA can now play audio material produced in the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) format from a CD. When listening to DAISY audio, the user can quickly navigate between sections, rewind and fast forward, and adjust the rate of the audio narration.
  • After the file is closed, the SARA returns to the last location in the file when it is reopened.
  • The SARA can scan a new page in the background while the user continues reading a current page.
  • The SARA comes with 40 public domain books for countless hours of reading enjoyment. The collection includes such classics as A Tale of Two Cities, Dracula, Treasure Island, and many more.
  • Files can be saved from the SARA directly to a burnable CD-ROM and opened with the SARA's built-in CD-ROM drive.
  • The SARA now supports ARK, DOC, PDF, HTML, and XML formats.
  • Files opened from a CD can be saved to the internal hard drive using a different file name of your choice.
  • The four keys on the front of the unit provide quick access to commonly used functions. Users can assign a variety of different commands to these four keys. This means that you can set up quick-access functions, such as moving to the top or bottom of a document or toggling scanning modes.

If you have the SARA and have not received the update, please contact Freedom Scientific."

HumanWare

"The self-contained design of the ScannaR is particularly appropriate for someone with little or no computer or keyboard skills. Keeping this in mind, we created a user interface that is simple, thus ensuring a comfortable and manageable environment. Also, when a page is scanned, it is retained even if the unit is turned off, allowing the user to resume reading at a later time. There are a host of Advanced mode features, but we have found that few users have transitioned to using these more powerful features. Clearly, there are lower-cost and more sophisticated OCR software solutions for the experienced computer user, but ScannaR is most advantageous to users who appreciate a more portable, one-piece reading device that is easy to learn and simple to use."


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Product Information

Product: SARA: (Scanning and Reading Appliance).

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, Blindness and Low Vision Group, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800-444-4443; e-mail: <Sales@freedomscientific.com>; web site: <www.FreedomScientific.com>.

Price: $2,595.

Product: ScannaR.

Manufacturer: HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393 or 925-680-7100; e-mail: <us.info@humanware.com>; web site: <www.humanware.com>.

Price: $2,995.

Related Articles

Recognizing and Rewarding: A Review of OpenBook and Kurzweil 1000 by Koert Wehberg, Deborah Kendrick, and Jay Leventhal


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Copyright © 2005 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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