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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle