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Software makes your brain recognise words by shape, not sound

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A British company claims that its software enables users to at least double their reading speed by making use of the way the brain interprets text. It says reading speeds as high as 1200 words per minute (WPM) are possible, compared with a typical speed off the page of 150 WPM.

BookMuncher uses a technique called Rapid Serial Visualisation Presentation (RSVP) which displays a document word by word mid-screen. The idea is that as the words flash by, your brain recognises their shape or outline, rather than trying to decode their sound or spelling.

"The science behind it is word shape recognition, rather than the relationship between the letters," said BookMuncher development director Jon Bunston. "As you increase the amount you read, you recognise more word shapes and can read faster. It can get you reading at 300 WPM in hours or 600 to 700 within days."

He added that as well as a £20 program for PCs, capable of handling Word or RTF documents and text files, BookMuncher has developed a version for mobile phones. He said the technology is a good fit for small screens which aren't well suited to displaying continuous text.

"We think reading on your phone could become a mass market, like music on phones. On a mobile, the main advantage is accessibility rather than speed, though. Probably 300 WPM will be the limit."

The software is the latest attempt to commercialise research done over the last two decades or so into reading speed. What the researchers found is that there are two blocks to faster reading - how long it takes us to move our eyes across the page or screen, and our tendency to subvocalise - reading the text silently to ourselves.

RSVP breaks those blocks by displaying words sequentially at a speed too fast for us to read out.

Bunston said that as well as letting you read technical documents faster, perhaps scanning chunks now and then as you get spare moments, BookMuncher works equally well for novels. It could also help dyslexics, he suggested.

"It's not really reading, it's absorbing," he said. "The traditional way of reading left to right, top to bottom, goes out of the window. You don't subvocalise either - that's what limits us to 150 or 200 WPM."

Other RSVP software includes RocketReader, ReallyEasyReader, a free downloadable applet for reading HTML files called FlashReader, Speed Reader Plus for PocketPCs, and a commercial multi-platform package called Rapid Reader.

Bunston acknowledged that BookMuncher is not unique, but pointed out that none of its rivals had achieved a breakthrough in the market. He claimed that the key to that could be getting RSVP onto mobile phones, with e-books as downloadable content alongside games and MP3s. ®

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