Read Chinese magazines how they were intended with Pleco Block Recognizer

When Pleco released its OCR addon in 2010, there was much fanfare, and rightly so. For Chinese learners OCR has been a game-changing feature. No longer are we required to spend precious time writing out characters by hand, counting strokes, or probing radicals – all of which are worthwhile in the larger scheme of things, just not while you’re reading the menu at a restaurant, or relaxing with a book. With OCR you need only point your phone at some Chinese text to view an instant translation on the screen.

Since then, the focus on OCR has been largely to do with the live translation of text, that is, using the camera in real-time. In this post, though, I’ll be looking at a feature of Pleco called Block Recognizer that performs OCR magic on photographs and images. This feature interested me because it’s implemented in such that it doesn’t get in the way of your reading experience. You don’t have to export the text, or constantly tackle an interface, it’s just you and the image. To understand what I mean it’s best to see it in action.

What It Does

As the name suggests, Block Recognizer works on a block of text, rather than one character or word at a time. Which means you’re not constantly resizing the green box, an annoyance that actually stopped me from using Pleco’s live OCR in favour of Hanping Chinese Camera‘s implementation. In Block Recognizer, once the green box is set in place, you are free to pinch and zoom about, clicking on the words you want to view definitions for.

The power of this feature is best illustrated using a magazine, since while it does work on books, or any image with legible Chinese text, a magazine is a medium that relies heavily on the formatting of the text and the surrounding images, which are all retained whilst using Block Recognizer. To demonstrate, I’ve used a Taiwanese retro gaming magazine that I bought on Ruten a few weeks ago.

Pleco Block Recognizer - Recognising

When you first load an image, Pleco performs character recognition on the whole image, which takes a second or two.

Pleco Block Recognizer - Character Overlay

All recognised characters will now be overlaid in green. This can be disabled, though, by pressing the ‘Hide Chars’ button at the bottom left. I prefer to read without the overlay to retain as much of the natural reading experience as possible.

Pleco Block Recognizer - Definition Pop-Up

You’re now free to move about the image, clicking on any words you want to view the definitions for. Very cool.

How To Use It

To access the Block Recognizer feature in Pleco, press the menu button at the bottom right, then choose Read+OCR. From the next menu choose the first item ‘Optical Character Recognizer’ and then ‘Block Recognizer’. Here you have three options for loading an image into the Block Recognizer – by taking a photo with the camera, loading a photo from the photo library, and lastly an image from the Pleco document folder.

In my testing I was using photographs of a magazine that I took using the iPad camera, so I was loading images from the iPad’s photo Library. However, if you’ve already got images on your computer it’d be probably be best to keep them in the Pleco document folder. To add images to the document folder open itunes with your iOS device connected, select your device, then on the App tab find and select Pleco. You can then drag and drop your images into this folder.

Pleco Documents Folder - iTunes

As mentioned above, after you’ve selected an image to view in the Block Recognizer, Pleco performs character recognition on the whole image. While it’s generally quite good, there are times when either blocks of text are left unrecognised, or a nearby image causes some confusion and results in erroneously recognised characters. In this situation I find it best to specifically resize the green box around the text you want to read, as recognition is re-performed when this is done.

Pleco Block Recognizer - Resize

Conclusion

The first thing about the Block Recognizer that I really like is that you can read the text without any obstruction, you’re not positioning anything or fiddling with settings – once you set the green recogniser box you’re free to read. The second thing is that you directly touch the characters you want to view the translation for, and this is good for the same reason touch screen devices are so revolutionary, you have a direct connection with the content on screen, in this case the characters. Which is how it should be.

There are some areas where Pleco Block Recognizer could be improved. Such as the need to exit back out to the menu and to choose another image. Ideally there would be a way to skip to the next image without having to do this. Allowing you to take a series of photos of a book chapter, or a few magazine pages, then read through them in succession without breaking flow by returning to the menu.

I also find the definition pop-up to be a bit delayed. It’s not slow, but after pressing on a character there’s a distinct delay in showing the pop-up. Not a huge issue, but it is a bit jarring when it does appear, and a smoother transition would greatly increase the quality of the reading experience. The same could be said for the horizontal bar of menu icons that appears along the top of the screen at the same time the pop-up definition bubble appears. This is quite distracting and as the options that appear are directly related to the definition in the bubble, maybe they should be positioned in there, instead.

Regardless of the small areas for improvement above, there’s no doubt that the Block recognizer is an amazing feature, and if you’re using Pleco on iOS then it’s worth buying the OCR addon for, even if you don’t plan to use live OCR at all.

Make sure to check out our other posts on improving your Chinese study workflow such as Reading Books with Hanping Chinese Camera and Reading Chinese on Mobile Devices with Pleco Pasteboard Reader.

  • ivan

    Wow so impresive, is this avaible on ipad or iphone, anyway thanks for sharing this information, i really appreciate it

  • ivan

    I just saw the answer of my previous question on your blog, so just dont want to borther you haha

  • Thanks for this, Dave.

    Pleco sounds like a gamechanger for my son, who’s currently in Chinese Year 1 middle school. Mainland, not Taiwan.

    BUT… I don’t want to drop 3000 kuai on an iPhone 4 for my 12-year-old, and then face him having it get lost/nicked in school. Any ideas for a good cheapish phone it will work on?

    • Hi Theodora, The block recognizer I showed in this post is only available on iOS devices at the moment.
      The other option is to buy a cheap Android phone and use Hanping Chinese Camera, it is very similar to this. I explained my workflow for using Hanping Chinese Camera here: http://chinesehacks.com/resources/mobile/hanping-chinese-camera/
      If you do get an Android phone make sure it has a camera with auto-focus and a fairly recent version on Android, which should be most phones available now to be honest.
      Hope that helps!

  • Wimal

    David, I am using a paid version on Pleco on a HTC OneX Android phone. The block recognizer does not work at all !
    After I load the photo and select the text block, nothing happens! Do you have any experience using this on Android ?