Reading phone text one word at a time

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

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
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?

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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 News.com.

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

makes them an attractive target for developing mobile applications.

Yahoo, for example, recently expanded its ability to tap short message queries as a way to get search results.

But figuring out ways to overcome the screen limitations of the mobile phone has proved tricky.

Researchers at the IBM conference discussed a number of ideas. A few paces from the Stanford booth, Motorola demonstrated an idea called Screen3, in which headlines scroll across a cell phone's screen. Clicking a button on the phone once pops up a paragraph-long summary of the story, while another click pulls up the entire story. Other researchers focused on other ideas, such as opportunistic annexing, a way to use the cell phone to grab the content, but tap nearby larger screens to display the information.

In India, Rediff.com, a portal that many consumers access through cell phones, the company is working on ways to restructure news stories to make them more palatable on mobile devices. One idea, already implemented, involves writing quick summaries of news stories and drastically limiting the length of news stories.

BuddyBuzz was developed as a research effort, but the Stanford team is now looking at how to commercialize it and sounding out venture investors.

One of the challenges for BuddyBuzz will be figuring out how to sell advertising in a medium where every word counts, but Eckles thinks he has an answer there, as well. Even a tiny advertisement in the top corner that ran throughout a story would be a pretty good branding opportunity, he reasons. Larger, graphical ads could also be placed in between stories.

"You know someone is focused on a very small area," he said. "It's like a guaranteed pretty long impression."