Reading phone text one word at a time

Researchers think they've hit upon the best way to digest articles on a cell phone.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--For those who have squinted to read text on their cell phones, Stanford University researchers think they have hit upon a better way: Do it one word at a time.

The technique, known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, or RSVP, makes up for the tiny screens on mobile phones by presenting just one word at a time in the center of the screen for a fraction of a second before moving on to the next word. As a result, each word is far easier to read than is the case with standard presentations, in which a sentence or two of much smaller type scroll across the screen at a time.

In a demo version of the software, dubbed BuddyBuzz, the user gets to decide how fast the text scrolls. At its fastest, the words fly far faster than a reader can sound them out. But those who learn to read words without pronouncing them in their heads can actually read as many as 1,000 words a minute, making it potentially far faster than traditional methods of scrolling.


What's new:
Rapid Serial Visual Presentation dates back to the 1970s, but Stanford University researchers are now applying it to the modern-day challenge of reading text on cell phones.

Bottom line:
It's easier to read one word at a time in the center of the cell phone screen than several sentences of smaller text, researchers say. Will RSVP find a willing market in widely used cell phones?

More stories on this topic

The system, though, is also attuned to syntax. It displays proper names for a longer period of time than prepositions and creates a natural pause for commas and periods. Between stories, it pauses: a time gap the company may one day fill with advertising.

The Stanford researchers, which presented its demo at IBM's New Paradigms in Using Computers conference here on Monday, acknowledge that their product is not ideal for all kinds of reading.

"It's not for every type of content," said Dean Eckles, an undergraduate research specialist working on the project. "It's not for academic papers."

Such a reading method is well suited, Eckles said, to short bursts of text such as blog postings or news articles. Indeed, the test version of the software, which can be downloaded to many types of Java-capable phones, focuses on just such content. The demo software contains selected blog postings, as well as news articles from Reuters and CNET Networks, the publisher of

The idea behind BuddyBuzz isn't new. The concept of Rapid Serial Visual Presentation dates back to the 1970s, although it was not until later that it emerged as a means of improving reading efficiency.

More recently, people have tried to apply RSVP to new technology. A 2002 study by researchers at Wichita State University looked at using the technology to improve reading text on a Palm handheld. The research found that people could read a Palm Pilot just as fast using RSVP, but that they preferred more traditional methods such as reading line by line.

RSVP has also been used as a means for speed reading.

But with the cell phone, RSVP might find a willing market. The fact that such devices are so widely used

Featured Video