On mobile rapid-fire reading

~ 28 July 2005 ~

Wow, this is just too insane to pass up before diving into a series about mobile design. Cleve Miller (English360) just pointed me to an article from Mobile Magazine, “Tech by Design: Rapid-Fire Reading on Your Cell Phone”:

There’s only so much text you can cram onto a small display before it becomes illegible, and when the text is large you have to press the Next button a lot, which interrupts your reading flow. There’s a possible solution to the problem that doesn’t require devices with bigger displays. In fact, the displays could be even smaller than they are now. It’s called “rapid serial visual presentation” (RSVP for short), and it involves displaying text one word at a time on a phone or handheld screen.

And apparently RSVP is nothing new, having been readily available for several years now. The article suggests BJ Fogg has been doing it for four years and claims he can read 700 words a minute.

Try the RSVP demo. Adjust the speed to your liking. Can you digest it after a few tries? Or does it send your head for a spin? And is this truly a viable form of reading (do you remember anything you just read)?



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1   Keith ~ 28 July 2005 at 09:59 AM

It seems to work ok, but the experience was a bit uncomfortable. I’d hope something like this was offered as a choice, because given that choice, I’d take the cramped full text.

2   Cameron Moll ~ 28 July 2005 at 10:02 AM

I’m a horrible speed reader myself, and my guess is this is similar. Not sure I’d walk away from a RSVP reading having actually retained anything I read.

3   Chris Griego ~ 28 July 2005 at 10:38 AM

After the initial shock of finding speeds too slow and too fast, I found it comfortable to read this way. Most importantly that you don’t have to shift your eyes a lot, the words appear in the same place. I think to comfortably use this on a cell phone, I would want a physical jog wheel that I could use to speed up and slow down as I read.

4   B. Adam ~ 28 July 2005 at 10:47 AM

What if you get interrupted? 5 seconds with your head up looking at something else and you’ve lost your place and have no idea where you are in the text or what’s going on.

Or, what if you’re trying to get directions, etc? Though, I guess they’re suggesting it’s just for books, articles, blog posts and the like.

Either way, interesting idea — and the BuddyBuzz site isn’t half bad!

5   Thomas Michaud ~ 28 July 2005 at 10:51 AM

After a couple of times through and setting the speed a little faster the second time, I found myself actually comprehending the whole thing pretty well … However, this still doesn’t compel me to browse the internet with my cell phone.

6   John Dilworth ~ 28 July 2005 at 11:04 AM

I’m a “skimmer.” When I’m reading, I like to quickly glance over the page and try to pull out what looks most interesting. I can see all the words in the demo, but I’m pretty sure that I’d have to train my brain differently to make use of something like this.

Can my brain be trained? Probably, but do I really want to give up those skimming skills that I’ve worked so hard to get? I don’t think so.

7   Brian Rose ~ 28 July 2005 at 11:40 AM

When I was younger, I had difficulty with reading comprehension. RSVP threw me right back to first grade. When reading books or articles, I often reread sentences, examine groups of words, and ponder the meaning of phrases as I go. I also linger on longer words while I fill in the comprehension gaps in my head. Doing so is much more difficult whenusing this display technique, even at the slowest speed.

I would never use this if given a choice and would abandon a text entirely if I wasn’t offered a cramped, full-text version.

8   Waylan ~ 28 July 2005 at 12:02 PM

I’ve been speed reading for some 20 years now. Yes, I can skim and do when I have little interest in the text. However, I generally actually read all the text. When I really get going I skip many of the small words like ‘the’, ‘a’ and such. Even so, I read phrases, not individual words. In other words, my eyes never focus on an individual word at a time, unless its one I’m not familiar with. Rather I focus on the phrase as a whole. This RSVP method does not allow me to do so and actually slows me down. Now if phrases where shown instead - that would be something. But then you have to get the breaks in exactly the right place. How do you get the devise to do that without explicitly telling it where each and every break should happen? Thus, the word at a time approach, I suppose. Its not for me, thats for sure.

9   AkaXakA ~ 28 July 2005 at 01:31 PM

Hmm, I’d guess I’d get a headache, but the example doesn’t show anything - not even the ‘Your browser is ignoring the applet tag’ in the sourcecode!

This is on FF/win…(and without Java, though I don’t know if that matters).

10   Brian Egan ~ 28 July 2005 at 03:14 PM

This technique could become revolutionary. After viewing the demo 3 times, starting at the highest level and working my way down a little each time, I was able to find a reading speed that was exceptionally comfortable, and just about as fast as my regular speed (which is around 500 words per sec last time I tested). I’m convinced if I were to spend 2 or 3 more hours with full length text, I would be able to match and perhaps surpass my current speed of reading.

There are a few things I’m concerned about, however:

  • I like to hit CTRL+F and jump to a keyword I’m looking for, then read that whole sentence to see if it relates to the content I want. I can’t see how to do this with this current technology (especially if the word lands in the middle or near the end of a sentence).
  • I think B. Adams had it right. If you were to look away for a sec, how could you reverse to the exact spot?In a book, you can see where your last position was, whereas it might be a little trickier here
  • It would be helpful to have a TOC or chapters that allow you to skip to the “page” your looking for. Some sort of bookmark functionality might also come in handy as well
It seems like a lot of these problems would be solved by the ability to switch between Scrunch-reading and rapid-reading views.

I’ll definitely try out and continue to look at this technology, I think we’ll begin to see this a lot more in the future.

11   Brian ~ 28 July 2005 at 04:13 PM

“…which is around 500 words per sec …”

Did I read that right?

12   Cameron Moll ~ 28 July 2005 at 04:14 PM

Probably per minute.

13   Simon ~ 28 July 2005 at 04:34 PM

Unfortunately, it didn’t work on my Treo, which is how I read much of the time. :) (I’ll try on FF in the morning.)

14   Wesley Walser ~ 28 July 2005 at 10:36 PM

I couldn’t stand it. Even after a few tries it’s just hard to do. I think it’s because it’s completely differant than how we talk. We are brought up learning to read like someone is saying the words we are reading, with voice inflections and such. This make reading in this manner completely impossiable. One person mentioned speed reading, and perhaps it’s more like that, but either way I couldn’t stand it.

15   Mike Purvis ~ 29 July 2005 at 12:20 AM

My biggest frustration with cell-phone reading is not that there’s only 5 lines of text, it’s that there isn’t smooth scrolling. I want per-pixel scrolling controlled by a jog-wheel, not “click the button for the next page of nine or ten words”.

I think if I could scroll through something Blackberry-style, I’d be able to almost simulate this, by constantly changing the words without moving my eyes, yet without the feeling of having lost control over the pace.

16   Joe Clay ~ 29 July 2005 at 01:14 AM

Actually I used to read a lot faster when I was younger and less distracted. Now I find that if my mind wanders a bit, though I continue to read, I don’t really read what I’m looking at. This made it completely easy to focus on it, because I had to look and since it was fast (It was fine on the fastest setting the last time I did it) it was almost like I would hear people talk. Of course there are bits that I’d like to think about more and this seems more of a pop-culture feed me info so fast that I don’t even comprehend what I’m seeing. That said, this technology could definitely me improved with planned pauses, like a little longer after paragraphs or, in this case, quote references. The quote references were the only part I had to think about and therefore I’d catch the quote and the year and miss the next few words of the next quote. A planned pause would be crucial there.

Oh and as for losing your place, you could offer an image with small text that you can slide a viewer (kind of like the photoshop navigation controls) back to where you were. Of course that doesn’t help on small devices. That said, I still wouldn’t use my cellphone to browse the internet like that. I like my laptop much better for that. If they’d come out with some quick, all-over wireless solution (other than bluetooth) for my laptop via my cellphone I’d be happy. Oh and if it didn’t cost mega bucks per month that’d be a good thing too.

17   goodwitch ~ 29 July 2005 at 10:11 PM

Curious. Reminds me of the first time I listened to a web page with a screenreader (and my monitor turned off). Not easy for me to retain the information.

I’m an avid reader (online, ebooks and those old fashioned paper books). I’ll admit I’m completely hooked to reading ebooks on my Pocket PC (PPC). But RSVP didn’t appeal to me at all. I’m a speedreader and need to see the context.

On my PPC, the screen is just the right size for ebooks. Enough to get the context and moving to the next page is soooo easy with the scroll button. I’ve got to believe that my next phone will have as large a screen as my PPC…and I’ll be happiest with a screen full of info, not just a “one word flashcard”.

This also reminded me of when I’m trying to proof an important document (like a certificate that will be printed 1000 times) and I read it backwards looking for errors.

18   Mike D. ~ 30 July 2005 at 11:08 AM

Great post. Wow, I would have never thought of this type of display mechanism, but damn, it works for me! Sure, this is not the type of thing you want to pour over a legal document with, but I feel like well over half the reading we do on the web these days is some form of skimming. For me, this solution seemed to work great, even on the first try… at a relatively fast speed. It makes total sense too as all it’s really doing is forcing you into a linear reading pace and saving your eyes from horizontal and vertical movements. I feel like it’s actually *more* disruptive to scroll screens and when you have to do that every 5 seconds, well… it’s a major disruption.

I think ideally, you’d have a button on your phone which would perhaps pause it, look for the last period or two and bump you back a couple of sentences when you hit the button.

I think context is very important here. News articles, blog entries, and the like are perfect for this sort of thing. E-mail? Probably not so much. E-mail content tends to be more concise and to the point and when someone is writing you something, every word is potentially quite important to you.

19   Fernando Dunn II ~ 30 July 2005 at 05:43 PM

This is a pretty cool idea for both mobile and PC browsing. I had a hard time on slower speeds, but when I kicked it up to 4-5, I was suprisingly understanding what I was reading. I think this will be perfect for things like

If someone would add something like this as a feature of a feed aggregator, I would be most obliged. A Firefox extension would be even better.

20   Casey Peters ~ 30 July 2005 at 10:03 PM

Wow, I was very skeptical about this but I actually think it has potential for me both personally and in the business atmosphere. However, I may need to strap down on the ADD medicine I’m prescribed so I can fully catch every word. Thanks Cam.

21   Micah ~ 31 July 2005 at 01:59 AM

Although I would like to see a couple additions to RSVP, I think it is a step in the right direction.

It would be interesting to read a whole book with RSVP and see how my comprehension held up.

22   Dave ~ 01 August 2005 at 11:51 AM

I tend to agree with Mike D’s comments. I think this could be usful for different types of content. It reminds me of some work Ben Shneiderman describes in “Designing the User Interface”.

23   da dawg ~ 01 August 2005 at 02:35 PM

Definitely demands your attention.

Something I’ve practiced mentally for about ten years now is rapid stream-of-consciousness thinking. I select a point in my life, and as fast as I can, try and recall as many events (big and small) from that point up to today. After awhile, you’d be surprised at how much detail you can remember in an extremely short amount of time.

Like anything, it gets easier with practice. Is it useful? I dunno, but I find it does help me read and retain at a much faster rate than in the past.

Along those same lines, see the “Das Keyboard” at http://www.thinkgeek.com/computing/input/7727/ …a friend has one and she says her typing has gone from a 42wpm to over 90wpm in less than 2 months of use.

24   Mr.khmerang ~ 02 August 2005 at 11:22 PM

Interesting idea, though I guess it would work better sentence by sentence… When you are reading fast, normally I think you are both skipping some words (like adverbs) and combining parts of the sentence to see as one word. Also I found that while you understand more with faster speed, if there is one more difficult, longer or an “orphan” word in between you’ll be stuck thinking that word and kind of miss the few next words…

25   Mr.khmerang ~ 02 August 2005 at 11:29 PM

Come to think of it, could nice to test the same thing but instead of showing one word at a time, the previous and next word would be visible as well. Eg. if would be more like horisontally scrolling text, word by word with 3 words visible at all times. You’d be reading the middle word but seeing part of the context as well…


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