Eyeball Pollution


One of the few vigorous direct actions I was able to take while director of the Center for Computer Sciences and Technology at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was to trample around on a venerable optical character recognition font called OCR-A.

When I arrived on the scene at NBS, action was underway in the appropriate American National Standards Institute (Ansi) committee to define a lower-case alphabet, promote the use of the upper case already defined and extend the already wide use of the numerical set. The latter was already widely used on raisednumeral credit cards; one easy way to recognize it is to look at the eight, which has a small squarish upper loop perched on top of a good deal larger but similar lower loop.

Overseas standards institutes had defined a complete (numeric, upper-case, lower-case) front called OCR-B and solicited my support in holding the Ansi group to a prior commitment to examine the European offering. It was abundantly clear that with the advent of large-scale-integration integrated circuits, the cost of discrimination logic in an OCR machine, as compared with the cost of frame, power supply, paper handling and optics, would be negligible. True, existing numerical scanners did not then have LSI chip technology. But clearly it was coming and could read virtually anything from Bodoni Bold to blackletter reliably.

Now, OCR-A is a distorted and ugly set. The proposed lower case was much prettier - which only proved that future scanners could read attractive fonts. The combination of reasonably nice lower case, ugly upper case and atrocious numerals and symbols was exceptionally unattractive and awkward. Control Data for some years typed much of its regular correspondence on machines (IBM??) using the mixture, and it literally hurt one's eyes to read CDC letters.

So I jumped up and down and hollered, "Eyeball pollution!" I said that millions of innocent housewife-type consumers should not have to strain their eyes, gnash their teethand write erroneous checks because turnaround documents such as utility bills were printed in OCR-A.

I had some effect. Not much - but the strong CDC thrust was somewhat blunted, and OCR-B became more familiar and more available. IBM made up appropriate golf balls. The years went by; LSI is a reality. The OCR people can read just about anything, although "oh" and "zero" and such still obtrude. Yet, after all the hassle, we now have divergent standards again: one branch of the retail trade has opted for ugly, clumsy A, while another (the grocery boys) has chosen B.

Somebody back at the ranch is presumably sweating out a warehouse full of old technology. And 50 million consumers in this county alone will have to suffer, perhaps for decades. As I said in a recent column, "Evil never sleeps!"

The National Retail Merchants Association should rethink the decision. It is technologically unnecessary. It is anticonsumer. And, in a world so often ugly and brutal, our trade and its customers should opt for pleasantness and good looks.