Spritz, the speed reading app. (Image: Screenshot)
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The smartphone app that claims to make reading 1,000 words per minute a doddle

How fast can you read? Not as fast as you could, according to Spritz.

A new app called Spritz that claims to offer a way to speed-read entire novels at a massively faster pace than normal, but without the kind of loss in comprehension that usually comes from skimming. It works by laying text out word-by-word, aligned in such a way that you don’t have to move your eyes when you read.

Here's what happens at 250 words per minute, which is at the top end of average for most people when it comes to reading speed:

And here's 500wpm:

Clearly, it works. According to its creators, Spritz has been in development for almost three years, and it based on “research” that states 80 per cent of the time a person spends reading is taken up by the eyes moving and focusing on each new word. Cut that out, and you attain a huge boost in reading speed.

The red letter in each word reflects what Spritz calls the optimal recognition point (ORP) – that's the bit of the word where the eye needs to focus to be able to grasp the overall shape and meaning of the word around it:

Spritzing presents reading content with the ORP located at the specific place where you’re already looking, allowing you to read without having to move your eyes. 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 ORP. Spritzing also enhances reading on small screens. Because the human eye can focus on about 13 characters at a time, Spritzing requires only 13 characters’ worth of space inside our redicle. No other reading method is designed to help you read all of your content when you’re away from a large screen.”

The key selling point for Spritz is actually not in speed, but in comprehension. Speed reading techniques, historically, were developed without the use of technology – they're for reading paper books, after all – and relied upon learning how to take in whole sentences, then whole paragraphs, and then, for the very best, whole pages. It's a case of pattern recognition, and can lead to incredibly rapid reading paces even if there is also, inevitably, a loss of comprehension. Studies have found that scoring greater then 50 per cent on a speed reading comprehension test is exceptional, not the norm.

Spritz, instead, relies on some visual stimuli research from the 1970s, on what's known as rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). It was developed as part of a study into how well participants could identify targets among a group of objects, flashed quickly on a screen; over time, further research revealed that RSVP made a good basis for a speed reading technique, with as much as a 33 per cent improvement in reading speed without any effect on comprehension. Spritz's novelty is the ORP, and aligning all words along that line to make all eye movement redundant. That's how they can claim that people can, unlike with those other speed reading techniques, reach as fast as 1000wpm with barely any training.

So let’s say you’re really into what Spritz is selling, and want to start getting through War & Peace in less time than it takes to watch a full season of Breaking Bad. The practical limitations of reading text one word at a time should be obvious: shorter words are going to be easier to understand than longer ones, and Tolstoy’s epic is going to be more taxing to grasp word-by-word than, say, Harry Potter. Anything with weird formatting, footnotes or sentences that can last longer than the length of a page – here's looking at you, Infinite Jest – are going to be made incomprehensible with Spritz. There's a button to go back to the start of either the paragraph or sentence that the reader is on, but for texts that require multiple passes to fully grasp (like, say, a scientific study) Spritz is going to be a hindrance, not a help.

That said, most people don't read those kinds of texts. Authors might be tempted to bemoan a change to the way that readers take in text, but for many people the ability to crunch down an email from a colleague, or their Twitter feed, in bursts like this will actually be pretty useful. The main usage that Spritz is touting is on devices, like smartwatches, that will be showing text designed for larger screens. Grokking a news story on a two-inch screen does seem like an obvious application for a speed reader app like Spritz, so it's going to be interesting to see if developers try to integrate it into their devices (or, less likely, web developers go to the effort of making their pages “Spritz-ready” or somesuch similar standard).

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser