Smarter Speed-Reading: ReadingStream Explores New Ways to Help the Brain Process Text

Like a growing number of Americans, I do most of my reading in front of a laptop or handheld screen. And though I think I read electronic texts a good deal faster than the average person—who by several accounts reads between 200 and 250 words per minute on a screen—I’m open to any technology that could help me breeze through 1,000 words in a minute. ReadingStream, a stealthy Boston startup with a new system for reading electronic texts, says that reading online texts at that clip isn’t out of reach.

The startup and its technology were introduced to me last week by tech entrepreneur Aaron Day, the CEO of Boston-based corporate weight-management firm Tangerine Wellness, who is serving as chairman of an advisory board at ReadingStream. The firm’s founders—CEO Eileen Shapiro and Joshua Kriger—have developed software that rapidly presents single words and images in the middle of a screen, with the time each word or image spends onscreen dictated by 60 psycholinguistic characteristics such as how concrete the meaning is and how common its usage is. Basically, the system strives to reflect how the brain processes text rather than trying to make the brain fit the technology. For example, the widely used word “red” may appear more briefly than the word “onomatopoeia,” which is seldom used in everyday speech and has an abstract meaning The goal is to help people read quicker while boosting their comprehension. (See a demo of the technology on YouTube at the end of this story.)

The patent-pending algorithms used to factor in these psycholinguistics are intended to be major differentiators between ReadingStream’s technology and the droves of so-called rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) systems, which have been around for years and also quickly present words one or a few at a time. In fact, one such system is available as a free plug-in for Mozilla Firefox Web browsers. The Firefox plug-in and other similar systems, Day argues, don’t have the built-in intelligence of the ReadingStream technology, which customizes the presentation of words based on how humans are believed to understand them. To make his point, he apologetically uses the analogy of the iPod’s rise in the world of MP3 players.

“I don’t want to make this crude analogy but… the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player,” Days says. “But [the iPod] definitely had some usability features that differentiated it in a way that caused the entire industry to hit critical mass—and I think you can look at ReadingStream as being in that same position.”

Day also believes that ReadingStream’s arrival is timely due to the recent popularity of eBook reading on handheld devices. Take, for example, eBook reading devices such as Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle and Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, both of which have become popular platforms for casual reading over the past two years.

Still, these are early days for ReadingStream—which has been operating quietly since it was founded in early 2007—and currently it has an interesting technology without a home. The startup is open to any number of applications for the presentation system, including licensing deals that would embed its technology in eBook readers, smartphones, websites, billboards, TV shows, and other places where electronic texts are consumed. The system has been installed in a prototype handset, Day says, and the startup is in discussions with potential strategic partners.

There’s reason to be skeptical of nascent operations without a clear path to the market, but at least ReadingStream has drawn some accomplished academics and executives to its board of advisors, including Howard Stevenson, a professor at Harvard Business School who is chairman of National Public Radio, among other distinctions. Another advisor is former Harvard professor Carla Schatz, who is now head of an interdisciplinary program at Stanford University called BioX. Day, the lead advisor for ReadingStream, has been chief executive of Tangerine and former Cambridge, MA, e-commerce software developer Undisclosed angel investors are backing ReadingStream.

Day sent me a demo of ReadingStream’s technology, and I must say that the presentation of the words flowed better for me than those I read with the Firefox plug-in. The Firefox system seemed to change the pace of presentation only after periods and commas, while ReadingStream made the words appear at varying intervals. Yet ReadingStream’s system will need a major distribution platform before it has any chance of becoming the iPod of rapid-reading technologies.

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