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Alphabet changes color of communication

Inventor readies e-mail system based on an innovative alphabet in which the 26 English letters are represented solely by individual colors. Images: Making words colorful

Lee Freedman has waited a long time, but he thinks the moment is finally right to spring on the world the color alphabet he invented as a 19-year-old at Mardi Gras in 1972.

For 35 years, between stints as a doctor, a real estate agent and a pizza maker at the Woodstock concert in 1994, Freedman has been working on Kromofons--an innovative alphabet in which the 26 English letters are represented solely by individual colors--waiting for technology to catch up with him.

And now, thanks to the Internet, the ubiquity of color monitors, Microsoft Word plug-ins and his being able to launch a Kromofons-based e-mail system, Freedman thinks he is finally ready.

Imagine getting an e-mail whose text is not the familiar black letters on a white background, but instead a series of colored rectangles.

That's how Kmail, the Kromofons e-mail system, works. Using a translation key, Kmail recipients can piece together what a message says, letter by letter, word by word.

That's how it would work at the beginning, and Kmail is largely the Trojan horse that could help people learn to adopt Kromofons and be able to read the new alphabet. Freedman's hope is that after not too much exposure to Kromofons, either in a Kmail message, or in some other form, you would begin to be able to read the alphabet the way you would with normal letters. And once that happens, he predicts, a whole new world of communications can open up, as words can be embedded in images just about anywhere.

It may seem confusing, but it's actually very simple, in concept at least. The letter "a" is represented by a bright yellow, "b" is a light blue, "c" a pale pink, "d" is grey, "e" is orange and so on.

The system presents some problems because the colors of some letters are similar to the colors of others. So the first few times a person looks at the translation key, it can be confusing, but the more time spent with it, the more it begins to make sense.

That confusion would most likely plague adults, of course. Kids are more likely to catch on much faster.

"Children really pick this up very quickly," said Tony Janson, the co-author of History of Art, who has spent a significant amount of time learning and thinking about Kromofons. "They start using the colors for different shapes and writing messages to each other, and they have a blast with it."

James Bennett, the dean of interactive media at the International Academy of Design and Technology, in Tampa, Fla., agrees.

"Children are going to learn a lot quicker, because they're little sponges," Bennett said. "Kids will (say), 'Yeah, this is cool,' and they will learn stuff just because it's cool."

For Freedman, Kromofons--for which he has applied for a patent--is much more than a kid's toy.

He sees Kromofons as nothing less than something that can change the way people think.

Freedman pointed out that for the entire history of the written word, humans have been reading in black and white. Now, he argued, people will begin to read in color, both in static words and animated phrases.

"That's going to change the way you think," Freedman said, "because knowledge that's coming in is going to be processed differently."

To be sure, Freedman doesn't have any expectations of Kromofons becoming the standard alphabet anytime soon. In fact, he has said that it could take 100 years. But he clearly believes that the language presents nearly endless applications.

To begin with, he thinks that the potential to embed messages in color images means that animation is a natural medium for Kromofons.

For example, he foresees things like video lyrics designed to play on video iPods, so that as the lyrics come through the earphones, colors simultaneously flash across the screen, spelling out the words.

Or dancers in a ballet could wear outfits that change color in different lighting to represent different messages depending on the storyline.

Or the colors could be used in nail polishes so that kids could spell out secret messages that they hope their parents and teachers can't read.

Of course, Bennett says, if that comes to pass, don't look for the adults to stay in the dark for too long.

"If kids start reading and producing this code," Bennett said, "the adults will want to pick it up pretty quick to figure out what (is being) said."

Still, Janson thinks Kromofons have much more application for children than for adults.

"Since (Kromofons are) just a color system, they can be used to design almost anything," Janson said. "You find kids writing messages to each other in different designs. And some of the designs that I've seen reproductions of are dazzling. They're not like any children's designs I've ever seen. Most children's designs tend to follow certain patterns for their age group. You can almost tell by the way a drawing or a picture looks how old the kid is."

But, Janson added, when he's looked at children's designs using Kromofons, "I've not been able to tell how old any of these kids were. And it turns out they were much younger than I thought."

That's why Janson came up with the term, "a new operating system for the mind," that Freedman has adopted for Kromofons. Janson said he hasn't received any money for any advice or consultation, however.

"The more I've used it, the more I find myself thinking in completely different thought patterns than I normally do," Janson said.

Janson said he has long suffered from attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, but the way he reads Kromofons doesn't seem to be affected.

"Because Kromofons are essentially abstract shapes with colors, and they have no inherent meaning, someone who has ADD or is dyslexic finds that it is much easier to use Kromofons than letters because letters are always very literal," Janson said. "And though each color has a letter attached to it, when one is reading in Kromofons, one actually completes the meaning of the word intuitively without having to spell it out."

For now, Kromofons will grow slowly, with a small number of adults interacting with the system via Kmail, as well as a Microsoft Word plug-in that allows users to type Kromofons in Word.

But the biggest hope for it being a transformative technology, Janson said, is for more and more kids to enjoy using Kromofons and to keep on doing so.

"I think it is going to take a generation," Janson said, "but I do think it will happen, because it is fundamentally a really good idea."