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Read a novel in 80 minutes? There's an app for that

03/13/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT
If you've always wanted to read War and Peace, but thought you'd need to be some sort of superhero speedreader to make it through Tolstoy's lengthy tome, then a new app might offer you a sense of hope.

After working for three years in self-described "stealth mode," U.S. technology start-up Spritz is ready to go public with its speedreading app — also named Spritz — which will be released for the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone and the Gear 2 watch.

The app poses all sorts of questions: Would a reader really be able to take in all the meaning when content is flying by at up to 1,000 words per minute? Would your eyes go buggy?

The Spritz founders, however, are flush with optimism.

"We're reinventing the way people read by eliminating the obstacles associated with traditional reading on mobile devices," co-founder and company CEO Frank Waldman said in a release.

Spritz says its text streaming technology is rooted in science and "uniquely designed" for small screens, removing the "inconvenience of scrolling, swiping, squinting and pinching" to read on devices inside a special display called a "redicle." Plus, Spritz is simple to use, the company says, and can be learned in less than five minutes.

Speedreading is nothing new — Spritz itself acknowledges that, noting there are a lot of other reading techniques out there that try to increase reading speeds.

But the start-up, which has offices in Boston, Salt Lake City and Munich, Germany, puts a lot of faith in its technology, which aims through its "new method of word alignment" and small display space to cut down on the time a person's eye spends moving from word to word.

"With this approach, reading becomes more efficient because Spritzing increases the time your brain spends processing content without having to waste time" searching for the next word’s "optimal recognition point," or the point in any word that the eye seeks, Spritz says on its website.

But can you absorb it?

Still, it's easy to wonder just how well someone would absorb everything that's happening as War and Peace churns through the app or as tired students try to Spritz their way through heavy-duty reading the night before an exam.

Spritz says it takes into account that different words require different processing times, and that "contributes to superior comprehension" when using the app. 

Co-founder Maik Mauer said in a release that the company's comprehension tests surprised them, and "confirmed" that Spritzing increases comprehension. 

Company officials were not available for interviews early this week, but others wonder just how well readers could take in and fully appreciate what they read using Spritz.

"I worry about retention when it comes to this app," says Holly Kent, community manager of the National Reading Campaign, a not-for-profit organization based in Toronto.

Research has shown that there is less retention from reading on screens compared with reading on paper, Kent says, pointing to a 2013 report in Scientific American that noted that a number of studies "suggest that by limiting the way people navigate texts, screens impair comprehension."

The report cited Norwegian research that found students who read texts on computers performed "a little worse" than students who read the texts on paper.

"Because of their easy navigability, paper books and documents may be better suited to absorption in a text," the report noted.

Lots of skepticism

Vedran Dronjic, a lecturer and cognitive scientist who studies language processing at the University of Toronto, was "immediately skeptical" and had a lot of questions about Spritz.

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