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Receipt Images from your Smartphone: the good, bad, and the ugly

March 12th, 2014

About six years ago, when we started building the technology behind NeatMobile, capturing receipt images via smartphone was still a bit of an oddity. We’ll admit it: when we used the early versions of NeatMobile at restaurants, airports, and pubs, we’d get a bit of a stare down by folks that thought it was a little peculiar to see someone carefully lining up their smartphone camera to take a picture of a receipt. And we’re quite sure that receipt pictures were not what early smartphone makers had in mind when they added cameras to their smartphone designs. The receipt images weren’t all that crisp back then, because smartphones most often had fixed-focus camera lenses, instead of the auto-focus camera sensors that now make it a breeze to capture great receipt images.

Yet from humble beginnings, year after year our approach became more mainstream, and now we can safely say that anyone with a smartphone and a receipt can be just a tap away from a Neat expense report. In the meantime we’ve been tuning up our smartphone camera skills to bring you tips and tricks about how to capture the best possible receipt images, even in “less than ideal” conditions. After all, the better the receipt images, the better your paper trail for expense reports, audits, and invoices to clients.

After working our magic on nearly 50,000,000 receipts to-date, we’ve improved our technology to handle just about any kind of receipt image you can throw at us. But, if you want to play it safe, here are some ways to improve your odds:

Shadowy Receipt Images

Photographers love to talk about ambient light and point lights, because the lighting environment makes all the difference in the resulting photograph. Receipt images are no different. Let’s contrast and compare two wildly different lighting environments – on the left is a receipt image I captured in an environment that had very little ambient light, but had two point lights (two bright pendant lights not too far behind me). On the right, a receipt image that I captured outdoors on a partly-cloudy day with no artificial lights nearby.

Receipt Images w/ 2 Point Lights
Receipt Image with
2 “Point Lights”
Receipt Images w/ Ambient Light
Receipt Image with
Ambient Light

Which do you think our system processes better? Well, we have outstanding shadow correction technology, and the above two examples are admittedly extreme, but the closer your receipt image is to the lighting on the right, the better off you’ll be.

Stuck in a low-light environment, with all kinds of lighting oddities surrounding you? Try turning on your flash. The flash will help illuminate the receipt so much that the various surrounding lights won’t cause such an uneven outcome on your receipt images.

Specular Reflection

Ever go to the hardware store to choose a paint color for a room in your home? One of the questions you’ll no doubt think about is whether you want to choose a “matte” finish (non-reflective) vs. a glossy finish. Believe it or not, your paint finish decision has some similarity to a decision that retailers make for their point-of-sale register tape, which of course becomes your receipt. Check out the shininess in the receipt image below. It’s just a bit glossy (we’ve seen much worse) but the receipt image reflects the flash from the smartphone camera:

Receipt Images w/ Specular Reflection
Receipt Image with
Specular Reflection

The above receipt is no problem for Neat, but receipts that are much more glossy can cause a bit of grief on occasion, sometimes making the receipt unreadable (even to the human eye). The workaround? Turn off your flash, leaving less light for the receipt to reflect.

Handwritten Receipts

We’ve saved the most complex for last: what if your receipt image is a mess of handwritten amounts and items, like the diner receipt below:

Receipt Images w/ Handwritten Amount
Receipt Image with
Handwritten Amount

No automated system is going to be able to make sense of that. However, with NeatVerify, we’ll go the extra mile to get you accurate receipt details even for handwritten receipts.

Our Challenge To You

Got a receipt image that is particularly complex? Check out a free trial of NeatCloud, upload your toughest receipt images, give NeatVerify a whirl, and let us know in the comments how we did!

A Digital Owner’s Manual Makes my Car Neat

March 8th, 2014

Aside from my new house, one of my most prized possessions is my 2007 Jeep Wrangler, affectionately known as Jeepsy. Jeepsy and I have been through a lot together, including a memorable 1,700-mile round trip to Prince Edward Island and back about a year after I got her. There’s something about driving around in a jeep with the roof off that turns road trips into legitimate vacations – the trip becomes part of the experience, instead of just a means to the destination.

As anyone who has owned a Jeep before can attest to – these cars have a lot of moving parts. While the same can be said of any vehicle, it’s particularly true for the toy-like Wranglers. Configurable tops (both hard and soft), removable doors, and a host of after-market customizable parts make the Wrangler something like the Lego set of the auto world.

Add in the routine maintenance any vehicle requires, and it’s easy to see why my owner’s manual is hundreds of pages thick. And I found myself paging to the same things time and time again – how do I reset the sensor after changing the oil again? How do I zip these plastic windows back in place again? Can I replace just the bulb from the taillight after backing it into a mailbox or do I need to replace the whole lighting fixture? What size windshield wipers do I need?

Rather than continue to thumb my owner’s manual into a dog-eared mess, I decided to take things into the Digital Age and make them Neat. I found a PDF version of my car’s manual online (most manufacturers provide this, and a simple search should get you accurate results.) Then, using NeatCloud’s convenient email-in feature, I simple emailed that PDF into Neat. Now I have it whenever I need it (I can access it on my phone any time) and – best of all – I can kiss the table of contents/index goodbye and simply use Neat’s built-in search functions to quickly find exactly what I’m looking for.

Digitized manuals are nothing new, but keeping them in Neat just makes things so much nicer. I’ve made a habit of keeping all my major appliance manuals in Neat, along with Jeepsy’s owner manual, and now I know that whenever I need to find some info on my important products and devices, it’s only a search away.

Sign a Contract Digitally – Skip the Print, Sign, Scan hassle

February 28th, 2014

Last time you were asked to sign a contract, did you print it out, sign it, then re-scan? You aren’t alone. Every day we receive hundreds of thousands of documents in NeatCloud, including a mountain of signed documents from folks who are taming their paper monster by scanning their contracts, leases, purchase agreements, and  other pages cluttering their desk. We’re glad to help, because every time you cut clutter the Neat way, we help you focus on your business instead of the overhead of shuffling paperwork. Still, it feels a bit old-fashioned to print and re-scan just to add your John Hancock to a signature line, doesn’t it? There’s a better way to sign a contract, and it doesn’t involve a pen. This article is for the Mac users amongst you, but we promise to get back to the PC crowd with an equivalent blog post in the future.

Here’s how to resist the urge to involve your printer or scanner the next time you need to sign a contract:

Step 1: Scan your Signature

If you are a Mac user on OS X Lion or newer, you are a few short steps from an easy digital signing process. And if you are a Mac user on an older version of OS X, it’s easy to grab a download of OS X Lion or newer, especially because you can upgrade to Mavericks for free. Got it? Next, do this:

  • Open your PDF in the Preview app
  • Click on the Preview menu, then Preferences. Click on the Signatures tab.
    Sign a Contract with Preview
    Getting Started with Using Preview to Sign a Document
  • Scrawl your signature on a sheet of blank paper, click the “Create Signature” button, and follow the on-screen instructions that use your Mac’s camera to capture your signature (you only need to do this once):
    Capture Your Signature
    Capture Your Signature
    See Your Confirmed Signature
    See Your Confirmed Signature
  • With your signature stored, you can easily apply the signature to any PDF that you open with the Preview app. Just open the PDF and click the Signature button in the toolbar, then drag your signature to wherever it needs to be applied:
    Click on the Signature Button to Sign a Contract
    Click on the Signature Button to Sign a Contract

The above steps get much easier the second time you need to sign a contract, because your signature will already be stored. That’ll put you just a click or two away from signing just about any PDF.

Step 2: Upload Signed Document to NeatCloud

Next, just sign into NeatCloud, and click the familiar “Import” menu to add your newly signed contract to Neat!

Sign a Contract - Uploading to Neat
Sign a Contract – Uploading to Neat

Once the contract is added to NeatCloud, you might want to move it to a folder of your choice. I like to keep a folder of contracts, with sub-folders for each party that I execute an agreement with. A little like this:

Signed Contracts - Organized into Folders
Signed Contracts – Organized into Folders

The reason I like this approach is that every time I sign a contract, I know that I can share the subfolder with the other party, for easy collaboration.

Step 3: Share the Signed Contract with the Recipient

Here’s the easiest part of all — when you sign a contract and upload it to NeatCloud, it’s easy to share. Just go step-by-step with the following screenshots to make quick work of sharing the signed contract.

Start by sharing the folder:

Signed Contracts - Sharing a Folder
Signed Contracts – Sharing a Folder

Type in the email address of the desired recipient, and perhaps a message that describes the contents:

Signed Contracts - Sending to the Recipient
Signed Contracts – Sending to the Recipient

Then, moments later, your collaborator will receive a personalized email invitation with a link to the folder contents:

Signed Contracts - Sending to the Recipient
Signed Contracts – Sending to the Recipient

It’s that easy. You’ve now shared the signed contract!

The Wrap-Up: Never Sign a Contract the Old Way Again

We’re hoping that the above steps will spring into action the next time you need to sign a contract. With a little bit of effort the first time around, it’s easy to get in the habit of skipping the whole “print, sign, scan” mess, and stay Neat instead! Want to try the above steps on your own? Just sign up for a free trial of NeatCloud, and you’ll be well on your way.

Digital Receipts – Pro Tips for Personal Expense Tracking

February 24th, 2014

I use Neat not only for expense reports at our headquarters in Philadelphia, but also for my personal expense tracking outside of work. My personal needs are rarely focused on tax-related documentation or audit-able records, but are more about tracking discretionary expenses and learning about my spending patterns.

To that end, I’ve tried three strategies recently that have dramatically improved my ability to track my personal spending without touching paper whatsoever.

Digital Receipts by Scanning the Register Screen

I’d never recommend this for business expense tracking, but if you share my passion for personal expense tracking you might try skipping the paper receipt altogether! Just use NeatMobile to snap a picture of the register screen:

Cash Register Screen as a Replacement for Digital Receipts
Scanning the Register Screen

I find myself being asked more and more if i would like my receipt, and for personal expense tracking I strongly prefer to say “no.” But I need some easy way to capture the transaction. So I snap a picture of the register screen. I’ve been especially delighted that many times when I do this, Neat succeeds at identifying exactly the right amounts for my expenses:

NeatMobile Results for my Digital Receipt
NeatMobile Results for my “Digital Receipt”

Sending Digital Receipts Right from the Register

I’ve noticed that in some self-checkout lanes, there’s an option to email myself a receipt. I’m thinking especially of a large home improvement store with a distinctly orange logo.

Emailing Digital Receipts
Emailing Digital Receipts

In the past, I’ve never chosen that option because I really don’t want the extra clutter in my inbox. Enter NeatCloud. If you are a NeatCloud user, you know that you have a dedicated email-in address that makes it possible to send digital receipts (or other documents) directly into your NeatCloud account. Ever try using that as a destination for emailed receipts from self-checkout transactions? With any luck, your receipt will land in NeatCloud and NeatMobile by the time you get back from the store:

Emailing Digital Receipts
Emailing Digital Receipts

It’s worth a try, because it keeps the clutter out of your own inbox while still keeping a record of the transaction.

Auto-Forwarding Receipts from your Email Inbox

This one is just for you folks who are real pros at staying organized. Did you know that GMail allows you to set up custom filters that cause inbound messages to be automatically forwarded to a specified email address? Sounds a bit technical, I know, but let’s look at a simple example for digital receipts:

  • Find an emailed receipt in your GMail inbox from your favorite eCommerce site, and do some search handiwork like the following. Then click “More” => “Create Filter”:
    Refining Your Search + Creating a Filter
    Refining Your Search + Creating a Filter
  • On the next screen, click “Create Filter with this search”
    Refining Your Search + Creating a Filter
    Refining Your Search + Creating a Filter
  • Then, add a forwarding address. This process involves a couple steps, but Google will walk you through it. Start here:
    Adding a Forwarding Address
    Adding a Forwarding Address
  • After you follow these steps you’ll see an item land in your NeatCloud account, under “From Email.” This should be your GMail confirmation mail. Open the item in NeatCloud, then click Actions => Download to get a PDF that looks something like this:
    Adding a Forwarding Address
    Adding a Forwarding Address
  • Open the PDF on your local PC/Mac, then copy/paste the confirmation URL into your web browser to confirm to Google that you do indeed want to allow Google to forward emails into your NeatCloud account. The confirmation screen from Google will look something like this:
    Adding a Forwarding Address
    Adding a Forwarding Address

That’s it! Now, every time you receive email from the specified email address, it’ll be forwarded into NeatCloud so that you can keep track of the receipts with literally zero clicks.

Digital Receipts Tips: Impress Us with Yours!

Got a creative tip or trick for tracking digital receipts? Something beyond what we’ve covered above? We’d love to hear it in the comments section of this post!

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