Reading at the Speed of Light: Can our eyes evolve with e-books?

speed-readingTech companies are rolling out speed-reading aids and software apps including “Acceleread” and “Velocity” that push the envelope considerably. Want to be able to zip through 500 words per minute? The engineers behind the product “Speed Read Trainer” believe they can get the typical reader to that level in about two weeks. Flipping pages at that clip you could read a standard-sized novel in about the same amount of time it would take to watch the movie version. Or you could sit down and polish off Moby Dick in one day.

Read 150 Pages Per Hour
But the product really grabbing headlines this month is “Spritz,” an app that recently debuted at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The makers of Spritz – which supports languages including English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Korean – have clocked readers at triple their regular speed. Spritz says it can get people reading as many as 1,000 words per minute. To put that phenomenal possibility into perspective, at that speed the entire Bible can be read in 12 hours flat.

As reported by ABC News, Spritz has been working in virtual secrecy for about three years to develop a program that incorporates what it calls an “Optimal Recognition Point.” That’s engineering shorthand for a kind of high-tech highlighting done in a specific way that aids the eye in lining up words to ensure optimal speed. Interestingly enough, Spritz is so effective because the words it presents are shown one at a time, not in a linear string of words or phrases or traditional sentence format.

The Digital Paradigm Shift
Digital technology is, of course, the key to all of these speed-reading applications like Spritz, because it enables words to be presented in a variety of ways and formats. Unlike with traditional reading, those who read from a digital device may have options to tweak the font, format, and speed of presentation of text and delivery of digital content. Meanwhile the market for e-books has grown explosively and caused a radical paradigm shift within the publishing industry. Today it is possible to carry an entire personal archive or library in the palm of your hand for mobile e-reading anywhere, any time.

Just imagine what can happen at the intersection of e-book development and the introduction of these new speed-reading programs. You could finally get around to reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” at 1,440 pages and then digest “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand – which is more than 1,000 pages long – over a single weekend. As a matter of fact you might still have time to hit the jogging trail, mow your lawn, and catch up on your sleep. Those busy crunching the numbers based on 1,000 words per minute point out that such ramped-up reading lets you burn through the entire Harry Potter series in just one week. If you start ripping through libraries at that warp speed your biggest challenge may be finding enough new books to read.

Does Spritz Aid Reading or Just Skimming?
Chances are that won’t be a threat anytime soon, though, even with the advent of apps to turbo-charge your reading speed. Although the research is rather limited, most studies confirm that when reading speeds up too fast comprehension and retention suffers. Most people aren’t able to recall spoken words, for examples, if the speaker rattles off more than 300 or so per minute. That happens to be the speed of the average reader, which is probably not just a mathematical coincidence. Reading is only partly neurological, too, because it is also a skill requiring a certain amount of physical fine motor skills. Your eyes need to move from word to word, aided by muscles. Experts tell us that as much as 80% of the time we spend reading is devoted to those physical movements of the eyes.

Okay, so what if you slice that time dramatically by eliminating all of the unnecessary eye movement? That is essentially what Spritz does with its one-word-at-a-time rapid fire delivery method. Would that automatically double or triple your reading ability? That depends on how fast you can process what you read or scan into your brain. Seeing more words per minute may aid in scanning and skimming, but it is not necessarily the same as reading and retaining. Even if you reduce that eye movement through the use of techniques like Optimal Recognition Point emphasis, in other words, the brain still has to capture the ideas represented by those words and group them into concepts you can comprehend and process. For now, at least, that takes a little time to do, so for the time being pleasure reading can still qualify as a leisure activity if you prefer to linger on the page instead of devouring whole paragraphs in the blink of an eye.

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