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What Is OMR?

Today’s organizations gather information from a variety of sources. Structured forms remain one of the most popular tools for collecting and processing data, and anyone who has filled out such a form recently has likely encountered the familiar bubbles or squares used to indicate some form of information. Whether these marks are used to identify marital status, health conditions, education level, or some other parameter, optical mark recognition plays an important role in streamlining forms processing and data capture.

What is Optical Mark Recognition?

Optical mark recognition (OMR) reads and captures data marked on a special type of document form. In most instances, this form consists of a bubble or a square that is filled in as part of a test or survey. After the form is marked, it can either be read by dedicated OMR software or fed into a physical scanner device that shines a beam of light onto the paper and then detects answers based on how much light is reflected back to an optical sensor. Older OMR scanners detected answers by measuring how much light passed through the paper itself using phototubes on the other side. Since the phototubes were very sensitive, #2 pencils often had to be used when filling out forms to ensure an accurate reading.

Today’s OMR scanners are much more accurate and versatile, capable of reading marks regardless of how they’re filled out (although they struggle if the mark is made with the same color as the printed form). More importantly, OMR software has made it possible to capture data from OMR forms without the need for any special equipment. This is especially helpful for processing forms information that exists in digital format, such as PDF files or JPEG images. 

The History of Optical Mark Recognition

One of the oldest versions of forms processing technology, OMR dates back to the use of punch cards, which were first developed in the late 1800s for use with crude “tabulating” machines. The cards typically provided simple “yes/no” information based on whether or not a hole was punched out. When fed through the tabulating machine, a hole would be registered and counted. This same basic principle would allow more complex machines to perform basic arithmetic in the early 1900s before serving as the foundation for early computer programming by mid-century. Entire computer programs were stored on stacks of punch cards, which would remain in use until well into the 1970s when more powerful machines made them obsolete.

Although OMR operates on the same principle as a punch card, it instead uses scanning technology to detect the presence of a mark made by a pencil or a pen. This form of identification was first popularized by IBM’s electrographic “mark sense” technology in the 1930s and 1940s. The concept itself was first developed by a schoolteacher named Reynold Johnson, who wanted to streamline test grading. He designed a machine that could read pencil marks on a special test paper and then tabulate the marks to generate a final score. After joining IBM in 1934, Johnson spearheaded the development of the Type 805 Test Scoring Machine, which debuted in 1938 and revolutionized test scoring in the education sector. In production until 1963, the 805 could score 800 sheets per hour when run by an experienced operator.

The 805 registered marks by using metal brushes to sense the electrical conductivity of graphite from the pencil lead. While effective, it had limitations in terms of reading speed and flexibility. When Everett Franklin Lindquist, best known as the creator of the ACT, needed a machine that could keep up with Iowa’s widespread adoption of standardized testing in the 1950s, he developed the first true optical mark reader. Patented in 1962, Lindquist’s machine detected marks by measuring how much light passed through a scoring sheet and was capable of scoring 4,000 tests per hour.

Throughout the 1960s, OMR scanning technology continued to improve and spread to a variety of industries looking for ways to rapidly process data. In education, however, the OMR market would soon be dominated by the Scantron Corporation, which was founded in 1972 to market smaller, less expensive scanners to K-12 schools and universities. After placing the scanners in educational institutions, Scantron then sold large quantities of proprietary test sheets that could be used for a variety of testing purposes. Scantron was so successful that their distinctive green and white sheets have become synonymous with OMR scanning for generations of US college students.

The next major innovation in OMR technology arrived in the early 1990s with dedicated OMR software that could replicate the drop-out capabilities of commercial scanners. Part of the reason why scanners used proprietary, pre-printed forms was so they could use colors and watermarks that would not register during scanning for more accurate reading. Thanks to OMR software, it became possible to create templated forms and then remove the form image during the reading process to ensure that only marked information remained.

Take Control of OMR Forms with Accusoft SDKs

Accusoft’s FormFix forms processing SDK features powerful production-level OMR capabilities. It not only detects the presence of check or bubble marks, but can also detect markings in form fields, which is particularly useful for determining whether or not a signature is present on a document. Capable of reading single or multiple marks at 0, 90, 180, and 270 degree orientations, FormFix can also recognize checkboxes and be programmed to accommodate a variety of bubble shapes. Its form drop-out and image cleanup features also help to ensure the highest level of accuracy during OMR reading.

For expanded forms functionality, including optical character recognition (OCR) and intelligent character recognition (ICR), developers can also turn to FormSuite for Structured Forms. Featuring a comprehensive set of forms template creation tools and data capture capabilities, FormSuite can streamline forms processing workflows and significantly reduce the costs and errors associated with manual data entry and extraction.

Find out what flexible OMR functionality can do for your application with a fully-featured trial of the FormSuite SDK. Get started with some functional sample code and explore FormFix’s features to start planning your integration.