Boston-based start-up Spritz aims for the sky with its recently announced mobile application, which, according to the developers, will drastically change the way we read. Forget about sentences, paragraphs, and layout. Spritz fires text directly at your eyes, one word at the time, at a break-neck speed. The motivation behind this presentation mode is straightforward: The eye movements that we make during reading are just a waste of time and energy. Remove these eye movements from the equation, and our reading pace easily doubles–or even quadruples–without much extra effort. With hardly any practice, anyone should be able to “spritz” at an astonishing rate of a 1000 words per minute. The prospect of devouring The Hobbit in merely one-and-a-half hour made Spritz go viral on the Internet. Even though the application is yet to be released, the world seems ready to welcome it with open arms.
But is the hype justified? Here, we take a critical look at the science behind this reading of the future.
Getting rid of eye movements
Even though reading doesn’t seem to take much effort, our brain needs to work-out heavily to process the enormous amount of text that we are confronted with every day. Indeed, reading is a very complex exercise. For one thing, our eyes do not stop to process each word of a sentence individually. Instead, our brain strategically picks the next position for our eyes to fixate on, and only then programs the eyes to jump ahead to their next fixation point. These types of eye movements are called ‘saccades’. If we struggle with the meaning of a word, we tend to fixate it a bit longer. When we work through more complex material, we also frequently go back to the beginning of a sentence to get a better grasp of the text. As such, our eyes are continuously moving while reading. And these movements are time consuming. The developers at Spritz claim that we dedicate no less than 80% of our time to these saccades while reading. And, more controversially, they assert that this is ‘lost’ time, during which no text processing occurs.
How we would normally read through a text. (Source: themicrofoundry.com)
If we would get rid of these eye movements, we might speed up reading tremendously. One of the more common methods to accomplish this is to present text as a continuous stream of information, one word at the time. Many of the speed-reading apps that are currently available on the market have adopted this strategy. By doing so, these apps claim to increase the average reading speed of 220 words per minute to 500 or even a staggering 1000 words per minute. Spritz distinguishes itself from the competition by taking into account the word’s ‘optimal recognition point’ (ORP): the position within a word that, if fixated, allows for the quickest identification. The ORP is typically slightly left of the centre. The software implements an algorithm that automatically aligns each word exactly on this position and colours the corresponding letter red. In contrast, other speed-reading software aligns the words right on the centre. Spritz asserts that this calls for additional (and unnecessary) effort, as readers should then again move their eyes a little bit to the left to fixate the ORP.
According to Spritz, rivalling speed-reading software (left) doesn’t get rid of eye movements completely. Spritz (right) accomplishes this by aligning each word on its optimal recognition point. (Source: spritzinc.com)
Spritz and science
The Spritz development team is clearly inspired by years of psychological research on language comprehension. There is indeed good evidence that reading speed and word comprehension depend on the position of the word where our eyes fixate on. When the eyes fixate a little bit to the left of the word’s centre, the word is processed much more quickly. By highlighting this optimal recognition point, Spritz makes speeded reading somewhat easier. In this sense, Spritz is a step forward from previous speed-reading software.
The idea to present words as a continuous stream also comes from psychological research. Back in the ’60, psychologists already experimented with this so-called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) technique. An experiment published thirty years ago demonstrated that RSVP reading works well for sentences or short pieces of text. Yet, for longer texts, comprehension levels dropped dramatically. Participants who simply skimmed text in search for keywords scored much better in follow-up comprehension tests compared to participants who digested the text through RSVP.
Moreover, speed-reading applications seem to overlook another robust finding from cognitive psychology: the attentional blink, the mind’s temporal blind spot. The attentional blink is typically demonstrated by asking participants to detect letters within a stream of digits. Like with Spritz, items are fired at the participants in rapid succession. Participants usually recognize the first letter in the sequence. However, if the second target follows quickly, it is often missed—as if our brain blinks, and momentarily blocks new incoming visual stimulation to better process and retain the information just presented. At higher speed settings, it is definitely not inconceivable that this attentional blink might ruin the Spritz experience.
Finally, one can question the claim made by Spritz that 80% of our time spent reading is ‘wasted’ on moving our eyes. It is well known that eye movements are faster than every other human muscle reaction, and take somewhere between 30 and 60 milliseconds. Given that we make about three eye movements per second, our eyes are in motion about 15% of the time. A far cry from the mysterious 80% suggested by Spritz. Next, while reading, we don’t only process the word that we look at, but also the words around it (about 10 to 15 characters to the right of fixation). Therefore, the brain already ‘knows’ where to look next. The most time consuming of all eye movements are those that take us a step back in the text: If we don’t fully understand the sentence or want to read a certain passage once more, our eyes jump back. Of course, these regressions take time, but they are essential for comprehension. Unsurprisingly, the amount of regressions critically depends on text difficulty. In Spritz, the text races on unrelentingly.
Getting rid of books?
Spritz will hit the market first as an exclusive add-on for the next generation Samsung smartphones and smartwatches. The speed-reading software will definitely be useful on the small displays of these devices, because it eliminates the need to scroll or zoom in and out of the text. When we want a quick heads-up of the latest news highlights and incoming e-mails or text messages, spritzing might come in handy.
Still, Spritz’s claim that their technique will replace books, newspapers, and magazines is pushing things. All scientific studies to date point out that speed reading comes at the expense of poor comprehension. A beautiful or difficult piece of writing sometimes calls for repeated reading, or a moment to let it sink in. As long as there is no independent evidence that spritzing doesn’t come at a cost (or even improves our understanding of the text, as the development team argues), you should remain sceptical of Spritz’s nicely coordinated marketing strategy. Your speed-reading experience might be like Woody Allen’s: “I took a speed-reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia”.
Spritz has put itself on the map with a potentially interesting product and a media campaign gone viral. Spritz may be a good way to get news updates or messages on next-generation smartphones, but it will not revolutionize the way we read. If you prefer to get a good grasp of the text, dislike missing out on some of the words, and sometimes want to jump back to a previous difficult or beautiful passage, you are still better off with an old-fashioned book. Also, students are ill-advised to study for their next exam on their smartphone. You won’t spritz your way to an A.
This is a guest post by Wout Duthoo and Durk Talsma from the Department of Experimental Psychology at Ghent University, Belgium.
But don’t take our word for it! You can try spritzing for yourself with the (promotional) examples below.
250 words per minute (approximately normal reading speed):
350 words per minute:
500 words per minute: