Don't Mock Speed-Reading Apps. They Are Life-Changing.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 3 2014 3:33 PM

Don't Mock Speed-Reading Apps. They Are Life-Changing.

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Is there anything technology can't improve?

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Last week, Spritz, a reading application that displays one word at a time, made a big splash on the Internet, inspiring dozens of blog posts and blowing up on social media. I'm guessing these sites were awed (or amused) by the flashy rhetoric of “reading reimagined,” which likely helped spark this flurry of attention, but the thing is that this technology, known as “rapid serial visual presentation” or RSVP, has been around for decades.

I've been using a similar app, Spreeder, for 211 days now. The reason I know the precise number? I've been incrementally increasing the WPM rate each day from my starting place of 300 to my rate of 511 as of this morning. (You can try this out for the rest of the post by clicking this link, copying all the text below, pasting it into the box, and hitting the “spreed” button. Then click on “settings,” change the “chunk size” to 2, and on the “advanced” tab, check the first and third boxes, and hit “save.” OK, now hit the play button.)

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Spreeder has completely transformed the way I read. Prior to using it, I would almost always lose focus during long articles, and at the end of each day, I'd have dozens of unread tabs to bookmark for later reading. Since I started using Spreeder, though, not only have I never run a daily reading deficit, I’ve actually run a surplus, starting to chip away at the mountain of bookmarked reading debt I've accumulated over the years. (Just powered through all the bookmarks about Herman Cain being the GOP front-runner. Should be interesting to see how he fares against Obama!)

My dependency on this application is so great that print text now seems difficult to focus on, and I find myself seeking out ebooks rather than print ones so that I can feed them into Spreeder.

While I’m an unabashed fan of this technology, RSVP has its detractors, who claim that these kinds of applications increase reading speeds at the expense of comprehension. They argue that users are unable to scan around the entire page or take moments to dwell on particular passages that might merit deeper contemplation. But an RSVP user can simply hit pause or even go back to the original tab if he needs a moment to think or wants to give something a second glance, both of which I do quite frequently. During my RSVP experience, I haven’t noticed any decline in comprehension; if anything, I’m more focused on the material, because I know I can’t allow my mind to wander or I’ll lose my place, similar to how a runner on a treadmill can’t just stop whenever they get tired. (Listening to books on audio has the same beneficial effect.) And even if there is in fact some comprehension reduction with Spreeder, it’s still a whole lot better than the 0 percent rate I once had for all my previously unread bookmarks. If only I’d known about RSVP while in college, I may have actually gotten through all 1,000 pages of Tom Jones.

(Spritz, while similar to RSVP, is not quite identical. Spritz finds what it calls the “optimal recognition point” of each word, marks that character red, and aligns this ORP in the same position for every word so that a user doesn’t have to move his or her eyes one millimeter while reading. With Spreeder, though, especially when using multiword chunks, there’s still a fair share of left-to-right eye movement required.)

RSVP technology takes a bit of adjustment—it took me a couple of days to get used to it—but even then, the user experience still has a few drawbacks.

For one thing, formatted text, like this bolded phrase, this italicized one, or THESE VERY HYPERLINKED WORDS RIGHT HERE go entirely unnoticed. Paragraph breaks are ignored, too. For all you know, these words could all be

on
their
own
individual
lines.

Also, if an identical phrase is used over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over, it just appears to be a glitch in the application. Plus, footnotes are a real tease.

Oh, and if a lot of words in a row are short, it can very much zip up all the text on the app to fly on by in no time at all. Meanwhile, concatenations involving extraordinarily protracted locution sequences substantially decelerate Spreeder’s presentation velocity.

Finally, whenever you come across subheaders, they can really jolt your train of thought.

MY PERSONAL TIPS

Increase the “chunk size” to 3-4 words. This gives you a bit more leeway in personal reading pace for each word. I also highly recommend checking the “speed variability” and “slight pause at end of sentences and paragraphs” boxes under the advanced settings. Finally, I combine my use of Spreeder with another application, Readability, a browser extension that cleans up pages by removing pull quotes, captions, ads, etc. and simply leaves the text, which makes for easy copy/pasting into Spreeder.

I'm not sure how high my WPM will climb, but I haven't had any comprehension issues so far. Maybe RSVP technology work for you too, or perhaps you hated this experience and will never use it again. If so, at least this only took three minutes and five seconds of your time, but if you keep using Spreeder, it could soon take even less. Hopefully for me, come 2016, I’ll be fully up-to-date on all the stories about President Cain’s successful re-election.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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