When BJ Fogg was head of U.S. research at Casio in the late 1990s, he wanted to use a technology commonly used for speed reading to deliver content to watches and other devices.
Casio never embraced the idea. But Fogg is getting a second chance. Now director of research and design at Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, Fogg is leading a research team that is testing the same technology – known as RSVP – to easily present large amounts of text on tiny mobile phone screens.
This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. His researchers have an entrepreneurial hunger, Fogg says. The lab’s created a public service called BuddyBuzz that anyone with the right mobile phone can use. And the team is studying the commercial feasibility of the technology.
“We think there’s definitely commercial potential for delivering text content to mobile phones and we’re exploring some of those options,” he said. “There are members of the team who would love to spin this out to a company.”
But first, more about the technology.
Even with newer mobile deï¿½vices with larger screens, the amount of text that can be displayed at any one time is limited, forcing people to scroll or tab from paragraph to paragraph or page to page.
BuddyBuzz’s technology largely avoids those issues. RSVP – for rapid serial visual presentation – quickly flashes words on a screen one at a time. The streaming process lets you stare at the screen and just absorb the text, without having to shift your eyes back and forth. The technology also allows the typeface size of text to be larger because just word at a time is on the screen. (See a video demo here and pdf presentation here.)
“At first, it seems kind of staccatto,” Fogg said. “But once you move the speed up, to about 400 or 500 words (per minute), it feels like a stream. And it forces you to focus on that stream. And pretty soon that stream starts recompiling itself in your head as information. There’s this sensation where you’re just staring at the words and you get it.”
Learning to read in RSVP takes practice. And research on the technology is mixed. Some users find they can read more content with less eye strain. Others don’t like losing control over the reading experience and not being able to jump around within the text.
“Some people do it real easily,” said Fogg, who’s been using RSVP for four years. “And some people just can’t put the words together.”
Originally developed for psychological testing, RSVP has been around for decades. Most recently it’s been emï¿½braced by the speed reading industry.
To use BuddyBuzz, users create an account at the Web site and download a small apï¿½plication to their Web-enabled phone. Not all phones work with the service.
For now, BuddyBuzz has deals to serve up content from Reuters and CNET. The lab recently signed on some high profile bloggers, including Howard Rheingold, Ross Mayfield and the crew that produces BoingBoing.net.
Fogg said Stanford has also loaded books and other content on the phones as experiments.
“Isn’t that a great idea to be able to have chapters of your textbook or novels on your phone?” Fogg said.
The lab has also been experï¿½imenting with a social netï¿½working element. Researchers are exploring the idea of reading groups, bound together by a common thread such as a hobby or work situation. People would receive content based on ratings or recommendations from others in the group.
As for the commercial viability, Fogg said the group is focused on the research aspect of the project. But there is enough hunger among the group for wider adoption that they’ve started meeting weekly to discuss the commercial potential.