My Thoughts on The Pearl Scanning And Reading Camera From Freedom Scientific

Introduction

During the month of July Freedom Scientific offered some generous discounts on some of its products as specials to celebrate the blindness conventions which were taking place at that time. One of the products being offered at a discounted price was the Pearl camera for scanning and reading text. I hadn’t needed to use a scanner in decades, aside from the occasional reading of computer screens that I sometimes do using apps on my phone such as Envision AI. We are very blessed to live in a time when the majority of books that we might want to read are already available in accessible formats from sources such as BARD, Bookshare, Learning Ally and the Kindle store. Don’t forget we also have other sites offering books and other accessible documents such as Project Gutenberg, Librivox, the Online Books Page and the massive collection from the Internet Archive.

While nearly everything that I want to read is available in an accessible format there are some out of print books which I do want to read and they are not currently available in an electronic format. This means that if I want them to be made accessible I can either pay someone to make them accessible, put in a request to Bookshare or scan them myself. Since my very old HP 3P scanner is not compatible with my modern laptop I had been thinking for some time about purchasing a new scanner. One of the things that I wanted in a scanner was very fast speed in scanning. The OpticBook 4800 from Plustek would have met my needs quite nicely but I couldn’t justify paying around $800.00 for that scanner when I might only be using it to scan a dozen or so books. I had seen some videos demonstrating the Pearl and one thing that impressed me was its speed. I still preferred using a flatbed scanner over a camera but the Pearl had the speed that I wanted with a price I could more easily live with, especially when it was being sold at a discount. After a lot of thinking I went for it, ordering the Pearl camera, a product maintenance agreement to extend the warranty by another year along with upgrading my older OpenBook license to version 9.0 so that I could run it on my modern Windows 10 laptop.

Placing My Order

I initially tried placing my order online but as I was attempting to enter my address I received an error message indicating that the company could not ship to my state. This was odd as I am in the United States and Freedom Scientific has been shipping CDs to me since they began operation when JAWS upgrades were shipped on physical media. I called the company to place my order by phone. I spoke with a very nice, super-professional woman named Elizabeth who was not able to explain the error message I had received. She did complete my order with no issues, however, and I wish to thank her for her kindness, clarity and for her superb customer service.

Installing OpenBook

Shortly after placing my order I received my authorization code for my new license. I downloaded the latest 9.0 release from Freedom Scientific’s Web site, installed the software, copied and pasted the authorization code into the appropriate edit field and the program was authorized with no issues. OpenBook was ready to use!

The one thing that Freedom Scientific could do to make activation a bit easier is to not have an extra space on the same line following the authorization code that you receive in the email that they send you. This would allow the user to just highlight or select the entire line that contains your authorization code, copy that line of text to the clipboard and then paste it into the appropriate edit field where OpenBook expects you to enter your authorization code. Since having that extra space produces an error you must select the line and then deselect that last space before copying the code to the clipboard. A minor quibble, perhaps, but a small change like this could speed up this process just a bit. Frankly, what FS should consider is producing an executable activator as they do for the JAWS home annual licenses since all the user would need to do is run the activator and it would then automatically activate their instance of OpenBook and download it if it isn’t already installed.

I was excited to install, configure and begin putting OpenBook 9.0 to good use. I hadn’t used OpenBook since my last role in 2016. While I remembered the most important aspects of the software I needed to reorient myself with several features.

After setting up Eloquence to my liking I downloaded the Tom Realspeak Solo Direct voice and began modifying the workflow settings to meet my needs.

Pros And Cons of The Pearl Camera

What follows is a list of what I consider both positives and negatives regarding the Pearl Camera, at least from my perspective.

Positives

  • I was pleasantly surprised at how compact and light the device is when it’s folded and in its carrying case. If I were traveling I could easily transport it without it being a burden to carry. For people who may need to do a lot of traveling and want to scan text wherever they happen to be this is a definite plus.
  • On that subject I really do like the carrying case that was supplied with the Pearl. It seems durable and I was pleased to see that the product was shipped folded in the case.
  • The Pearl is definitely fast. When the lighting is set appropriately it takes five or six seconds from the moment that I initiate the scan until I start hearing the results of what I scanned. Speed was definitely something that I wanted and the Pearl delivers when it comes to its fast recognition.
  • I was very pleasantly surprised to see a Braille quick start guide contained in the package. It explained how to set up the camera and provided some keyboard commands for those using the Pearl with OpenBook. Being a Braille user I was absolutely delighted to have this. JAWS used to ship with a Braille quick start guide and I believe that OpenBook did as well but this is no longer the case since Freedom Scientific no longer ships their software on physical media, such as on a CD or a DVD. I don’t know if a new JAWS or OpenBook purchaser is entitled to receiving a Braille quick start guide at no cost but if they’re not they really should be. In fact, before Freedom Scientific came into existence you could contact Arkenstone to request a complete OpenBook Braille manual at no cost.
  • If you’re using the Pearl with either JAWS or OpenBook it’s about as plug and play as you can get. You plug the camera into your computer’s USB port and JAWS is generally ready to work with it. My instance of OpenBook was configured to work with it as well but I can’t remember if I already configured OpenBook to use the Pearl before I set it up.
  • The USB cable that comes with the Pearl is of a very generous length. I really appreciated this as the Pearl is on a shelf above my laptop and I was initially concerned that the supplied cable would not be long enough.

Negatives

  • On a couple of occasions using the convenient OCR feature JAWS did not actually see the Pearl and I had to ensure that it was the selected scanner in the list.
  • As others have told me lighting is a very important factor when it comes to ensuring accurate scans. The Pearl has an option to enable its own lighting and this helps but I get the best scans when a nearby lamp on my desk is enabled. I will need to continue to experiment with this to determine the best combination as far as the lighting in my environment as opposed to enabling the light on the Pearl. I welcome feedback from Pearl users who no doubt will have more experience and knowledge about this.
  • A couple of times a scan wouldn’t even initiate if the Pearl believed that there was insufficient lighting.
  • I’m still learning the best positioning to ensure that a page is accurately scanned. In particular, I’m attempting to scan a hardback book which is a bit larger than a typical paperback and the Pearl can’t seem to accurately read both pages, no matter how I position the book. I’ve decided to just take the book apart and scan one page at a time.
  • As fast as the Pearl is the camera shutter sound that you hear as it takes a picture still takes a few seconds to sound. Assuming that the Pearl is powered up I wish it could snap the picture a tad faster.
  • The KNFB Reader app would not work with the Pearl even though it acknowledged the scanner, calling it “Pearl Proxy.” I did install Freedom Scientific’s third party Pearl driver software. However, I suspect that this is more the fault of the KNFB Reader app than the Pearl. Every time I would try to access the app’s settings KNFB Reader would consistently crash. At one point the KNFB Reader didn’t even have the Pearl camera listed in its pull-down menu of possible scanning sources. I bought the app when it was temporarily being sold for $10.00 and I’m very glad I didn’t pay full price for it. I decided to uninstall it. I may reinstall it and give it a try later on but for now I’m happy occasionally using JAWS for a few scans and OpenBook as my primary program for scanning.
  • While this has nothing to do with the Pearl the convenient OCR feature in JAWS isn’t exactly the most convenient as it takes four keystrokes to scan a page. I have to press insert-space, O for OCR, A for acquire and enter to actually initiate the scan. Compare this to OpenBook where I just need to press the space bar to scan and read and you understand how and why I’ve gotten so spoiled. As I’m a user of Leasey I wrote to Brian Hartgen to ask if he’d consider adding a feature to scan within JAWS with just two or even one keystroke. He indicated on the Leasey discussion list that he would try to add this capability for the next release.
  • I wish that the camera itself could move, allowing me to position it to better cover the location of the page that I want to scan without the need to move the entire device. .

In spite of the negatives I’m glad that I purchased the Pearl. A flatbed scanner would definitely have been more straightforward to use but it might not have given me the speed that I was looking for. The Plustek’s OpticBook 4800 would have offered similar speeds but at a cost of approximately $800.00, which I could not justify. I am therefore happy with the Pearl for what it does and I’m looking forward to using it even more.

Some Thoughts on OpenBook: Past and Present

I’d like to slightly switch gears and conclude with my thoughts on the OpenBook software. As this will be my go-to source for scanning material from the Pearl camera I feel that I can’t write a review of the Pearl camera without ending with some commentary on the main software that many people will be using with the Pearl.

By today’s standards OpenBook from Freedom Scientific is an expensive and clunky piece of software. Back in the 1990s we were living in a very different time where we had to rely on a few specialized sources to obtain books in accessible formats. It was a bit more justifiable to have to pay a thousand dollars for an intuitive and fully featured scanning and reading solution. Nowadays, we have many different sources for obtaining accessible versions of books, only some of which I’ve referenced in the introductory section of this post. We also have very inexpensive and even free OCR solutions available on our smart phones for scanning those shorter documents. Considering this the thought of paying nearly a thousand dollars for a Windows-based scanning and reading solution might be a bit difficult for some of us to justify. It’s also regrettable that Freedom Scientific has pretty much stopped development of OpenBook. The last update to version 9.0 was released during February of 2018. The previous update to version 9.0 was released in December of 2016. To be fair the initial release of version 9.0 did add a ton of new features to the software, although I felt that renaming the scanning settings to workflow settings added an unnecessary level of complexity to a program that could be all things to all people with a very simple and intuitive user interface. The company also explained during a recent webinar that continuing to modify the code was challenging as it’s quite old. They are very correct. I began using version 2.0 of OpenBook in 1998 which needed to be installed with a light version of Windows to run the program, a necessary feature since many users were still running DOS at that time and hadn’t made the switch to Windows. Version 4.0 was a welcome and major release. This version, which Arkenstone called the Ruby Edition, gave OpenBook the modernization it desperately needed with a real menu bar interface and faster as well as more accurate recognition. Subsequent versions continued to add and improve features but OpenBook continued to offer those very odd pre-Windows 95 conventions and keyboard commands. When Freedom Scientific purchased Arkenstone they continued to release new OpenBook updates, ending with version 9.0. This latest version works nicely on Windows 10 but still has that odd interface that continues to make it feel like ancient software, such as those odd navigation commands in its read-only mode and the fact that it can only install RealSpeak Solo Direct voices and not the newer, more modern Vocalizer voices. I smiled when I saw its Notetaker settings to configure it for old Blazie notetakers with the Pac Mate being the newest item on the list. Still, OpenBook is comforting to use, an odd mixture of the far distant past along with a slightly more modern Windows-style interface. It’s like that old shoe that’s well-worn but one that you don’t have a desire to throw away because it works and does what you need it to do. Its anachronistic features being made available on my Windows 10 laptop make OpenBook quite charming and unlike any other piece of software I’m currently running. Still, I do believe that if Freedom Scientific feels that they can no longer continue to develop OpenBook they really should stop selling it at its current price and lower the cost as they did with the Pearl camera.

Finally, while I understand that updating OpenBook’s software might be somewhat challenging I can’t help but think that Microsoft Office, which was also designed to run on Windows 3.1, was modernized and updated to run efficiently on computers running Windows 10. I would argue that if Freedom Scientific is going to continue to sell OpenBook at its current price then the company should invest in modernizing the software with features such as support for the newer Vocalizer voices and updating the scanning engines.

One thought on “My Thoughts on The Pearl Scanning And Reading Camera From Freedom Scientific

  1. Many people still appreciate the batch processing capabilities of Openbook for scanning in multi-page documents or large books. Epson document scanners can scan in about 5 seconds. It would be possible to port this program to 64Bit, and FS has more than made their money from it I am sure. I think it should be updated exactly as you described. Also being able to turn paper documents directly into MP3 audio files was a very helpful feature in certain situations. Such fair-use applications should be covered by the accessibility provisions of the Millennium Copyright Act.

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