Reading from the monitor with a mobile phone

Posted on September 17, 2008

Some of you might already know about this piece of software for Symbian phones (for the N82 in particular) that does OCR directly from the phones built-in camera. I have such a thing (a big thanks to my employer) and find it very valueable in daily usage. But this is a story about a use case that I never would have dared to hope for.

I can use my mobile phone to read the content of my monitor! This is the first time I feel like experiencing technology from the 21st century. From now on, if something fails unexpectedly I am no longer required to ask someone to read whats displayed on the monitor, I have a new possibility to try first. While this is not practical when you actually try to interact with a program, it can at least help to figure out what error message is displayed.

Yesterday evening I had a pretty simple job to do: Create a partition table on a new 2GB CompactFlash card, transfer old partition content to it and make the card bootable. So far, so good. I did what I needed to do, and then slotted the CF-card into the test machine. After turning the device on, the usual thing happened: nothing. Since the machine didn't show up on my network with the IP address I configured, something must have gone wrong. Damn. At this point you are usually pretty stuck if you are blind and without a sighted coworker. While serial consoles are a nice thing to have, PC BIOSes are usually a bitch when it comes to working serial consoles. This test machine has a pretty old BIOS too, so forget about that route. Since it was already past midnight, there was no one around whom I could ask to read the monitor content to me either. Which lead me to an idea: Why not use my KNFB Reader to figure out whats going on?

To make a long story short: Yes, it works! I had to turn off the light in my room to get optimal results, but after that, it basically works as reliable as with print on paper! The tabular data displayed didn't get read correct, but that was not what I was after. The last sentence my phone said was what I needed to know:

"Insert disk and press a key to continue"

So while I haven't been able to fix the actual problem at hand (the BIOS does not support CF cards larger than 1GB) I was at least able to narrow the problem down to the BIOS not recognising my new CF card as bootable media.

This opens up completely new possibilities of independence in my profession.

Now who is going to put together a special version of OCRopus(tm) for mobile devices? A coworker of mine is already thinking about writing a tool for doing things like color analysis using a mobile phone camera. I think this is a very exciting idea loaded with possibilities. The world needs more practically oriented open source projects related to optical recognition!