Scientific research conducted by Walker Reading Technologies, a small Minnesota startup that has been studying our ability to read for the last ten years, has concluded that the natural field of focus for our eyes is circular, so our eyes view the printed page as if we’re peering through a straw.
And a very bad-behaving straw at that, because not only do our eyes feed our brain the words we’re reading, they’re also uploading characters and words from the two sentences above and below the line we’re reading.
Every time we read block text, we’re forcing our brain to a wage a constant subconscious battle with itself to filter and discard the superfluous inputs. This mental tug of war slows reading speed and diminishes comprehension.
When our ancestors first invented written language about 5,000 years ago, they unfortunately didn’t have armies of neuroscientists standing by to tell them block type was the wrong way to format their papyrus rolls. But fret not. Help is on the way.
Walker Reading Technologies’ CEO and co-founder, Randall Walker MD, believes he and his team have developed a solution with a product called Live Ink that allows online publishers to improve reading speed and comprehension. Live Ink works by analyzing written language for meaning and language structure, and then applies algorithms that reformat the text into a series of short, cascading phrases. It breaks complex syntax into simpler syntax, which makes it easier for the brain to absorb the material.
The company presented its latest findings yesterday at the sold out Digital Book 2007 conference here in New York.
Early results have been encouraging. According to Walker, a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education found that students who read text books in Live Ink are adding 10-15 percentile points on nationally standardized reading tests. Non native English speakers are seeing similar improved proficiency.
A more detailed article about the technology and science behind Live Ink can be found here.
If the technology lives up to its promise, Live Ink represents a veritable breakthrough that could change the way people read online content. With eyeballs moving from dead tree media to a screen near you, readability of online text will become a competitive differentiator for many online content providers.
In 2003, the company signed a big licensing deal with Holt, Reinhart and Winston, one of the world’s largest publishers of textbooks and a division of publishing giant Reed Elsevier. The deal allowed HRW to integrate the Live Ink technology into the company’s line of online text books.
Now that the company has proven its technology (through the HRW deal, and Dept. of Education study), it’s looking to aggressively expand by signing additional licensing deals with publishers of ebooks, blogs and newspapers.
The company has protected its intellectual property with a portfolio of international patents that its says covers 80 percent of the global economy.
The company was founded in 1996, and has taken in a little over $4 million in angel capital from private investors and $400,000 in U.S. Department of Education grants in 2001 and 2002. The company is profitable. Randall Walker tells VentureBeat the company is currently evaluating whether to fund its next stage of growth from cash flow or from a new funding round. If the company pursues a new funding round, Walker says the company may for the first time entertain funding participation from top-tier VCs.
Although Live Ink offers the potential to improve world wide literacy and support the growth of screen-based reading, it still faces the challenge of overcoming our entrenched reading habits. Since grade school, we were all taught to read block text. It’s not perfect, but it’s comfortable and familiar.
Yet the Internet has a way of forcing rapid evolution of communication habits, especially when the communication methods are faster, easier and more direct. One only has to look as far as email, cell phones, or recent innovations such as texting and Twittering to understand that we humans crave immediate communication. If Live Ink is truly a breakthrough, those who use it will have competitive advantage over those who don’t. At a minimum, Digital Ink reminds us that as human evolution collides with Moore’s Law, we’re bound to learn more about ourselves.
Mark Coker is a contributing writer for VentureBeat. He’s founder of Dovetail Public Relations, a Silicon Valley technology marketing firm. He has no clients among the companies mentioned in the story, nor among their competitors. More on Mark at http://www.linkedin.com/in/markcoker