Welcome to Spritz: the future of reading

If this technology takes off then speed reading may be an Olympic sport in the future.

August 21, 2016

Perhaps you’re already a voracious page ripper who burns through novels like they’re pamphlets. Or maybe you’re a more considered consumer of the written word, luxuriating in the nuances of language as you potter from tome to tome.

Either way, Spritz is out to get you – and get you to read faster, uploading ever larger quantities of information into your easily-distracted brain. If you somehow missed the news juggernaut it came into town on, Spritz is a piece of software that’s planning to take online reading to its next chapter.

It’s threatening to get you reading at a speed that’d see you polish off Leo Tolstoy’s 560,000-word epic War and Peace in under 10 hours. You’d be reading the last sentence of this article in just over a minute’s time. And its creators think 15 per cent of the world’s text will be read using its method by 2016. 

Spritz works like this: it presents you with a word at a time, one letter highlighted towards the middle, in a reading box it calls the ‘redicle’. The position of the highlighted letter remains constant and this is where you keep your eyeballs rested while Spritz spits out word after word at your ordained speed. The pace starts around 250 words per minute (wpm) and goes up to 1,000wpm, or thereabouts. 

The effect is like one of those scientific experiments from the 1960s in which white-coated projectionists flash up words on a silver screen to explore the minds of their subjects. Even after a couple of minutes using Spritz, it’s easy to come away with the gist of something you’ve just read at 600wpm, nearly three times the traditional average reading speed. It’s eerily passive as well: the more you relax, the easier it is to absorb the verbal deluge bouncing off your retinae.

Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) isn’t new. It’s exactly what those wacky scientists were doing all those years ago. They were studying attention patterns to begin with, then in the 1970s it was explored as a way of boosting reading speeds to over 700wpm.

Where Spritz improves the formula is with the static red letter strategically position in what is known as the optimal recognition point (ORP) of the word. By anchoring the eye at this point and allowing the brain to pick out the peripheral letters with minimal movement, Spritz claims to have taken the stress out of RSVP and boosted reading speeds. But if Spritz succeeds where RSVP failed, it will owe that mostly to good timing. 

After three years of gestational development, Spritz has arrived into a world where online publishing is in the ascendency, screens are ubiquitous and time is at a premium. Back in the 1970s, people used to ponder the liner notes on a gatefold LP at their leisure. These days, you barely have time to take in the star rating on iTunes before you download the MP3.

That’s not some glib assumption about the state of our busy metropolitan modern lives versus those of beardy, sandal-wearing hippies 40 years ago. It’s based on empirical fact. Research by Jakob Nielsen in 2008 suggested most people would read just a fifth of the text on a web page on average. He recommended publishers should trim their word counts to account for the limited attention span of the online reader. You could expect less than half of anything over 100 words to be read, he found. To put that in perspective, 100 words is exactly the length of this paragraph.

Of course, six years is a long time in technology. Since Nielsen’s study the ebook revolution has taken hold and there has been an explosion in the uptake of touchscreen tablets which are widely credited with helping to reintroduce long-form writing to the web. Since Apple introduced the iPad in early 2010, the market has been flooded with imitators. Smartphone screens have expanded to accommodate the burgeoning mobile web market. People who weren’t reading while they were sitting at their desks are now reading on the go. And the story doesn’t end here – the industry is pushing yet another wave of mobile devices: smartwatches and glasses. 

If we assume the successful adoption of one of those wearable technologies, paired with a distractable Generation Y audience who are increasingly beckoned by games, videos and social media, Spritz could not ask for a better landing spot. In technology there is rarely a perfect storm, but keeping long tracts of text relevant at the dawn of the smartwatch age makes for a pretty good squall.

Spritz is not without its detractors. Amy Thibodeau, a content strategist at Facebook, describes the experience as being “like approaching a meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant in the same way you would approach a hotdog-eating contest and afterwards being pleased that you were able to keep it all down.” Which seems strange, since the ability to hoover up a day’s worth of social media updates by staring at your phone screen for a minute seems like exactly the sort of hotdog-scoffing brilliance Spritz imagines third-party app developers will create. And ultimately, it is those developers who will make or break Spritz. 

Spritz has also got an eye on TV closed captioning, with real-time commentary appearing on the screen in sports bars or airports. To date, you can Spritz (yes, it’s a verb too) in English, Spanish, French, German, Russian and Korean (Spritz debuted on the Samsung Galaxy S5 and its partner device, the Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch; we assume the inclusion of the latter was brokered as part of the Korean tech giant’s deal). And the labs are brushing up more language skills with “Chinese and a few others” in the pipeline. There’s no official word on Arabic, but clearly there’s no problem with support for non-Roman characters so it’s probably safe to assume that will arrive in due course if Spritz achieves its potential.

It’s a big if, though. There are the likes of Amy Thibodeau, who think enjoyable reading should be chewed at leisure, and they shouldn’t be discounted. Few of us think Spritz would be a good delivery system for reading Hamlet, and while that’s not the point of a rapid word delivery system, it does discredit the idea of reading an ebook on your smartwatch. 

A bigger problem for users is retention. Speed reading naysayers maintain that while the words can be read thick and fast, comprehension is limited by one’s biological computing power. Some studies put the maximum speed for comprehension at 300wpm, around double the speed of normal human speech. Does faster reading come at the expense of analysis and retention? Not according to Spritz, which says its testing “shows the retention levels when spritzing are at least as good as with traditional reading and that, with just a little bit of experience, you will retain even more than you did before.”

There’s no such comeback for the inherent navigational difficulties. Even the most evangelistic Kindle converts bemoan the lack of a really good idea of where they are in an ebook. A progress percentage just can’t cut it against seeing how many pages you’ve read (and have left) in physical leaves.

Readers want to know where they have come from and where they are going whatever they are reading: magazines, websites, novels, social media feeds. And if you miss something – which really isn’t unlikely if you’re trying to take in 16 words every second – it’s tricky to navigate back to the last point where you knew what was going on. 

In the murky waters of technological patent law, there’s also the chance that someone (Apple, say) develops a rival reading tool that it claims is better and successfully forces down the throats of its captive audience. History doesn’t discount the possibility.

A rapid information delivery system in an age of short attention spans, limited downtime and constant informational noise is certainly appealing. And that has done wonders for Spritz’s PR machine. Whether it can convert the good will of the press into a genuine reading revolution is a plot that’s yet to unravel.