News From The Corner Office

Dr Anna L Cox @ UCL Interaction Centre, London

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Speed reading apps are great for snippets but not sonnets

By Anna L Cox, University College London and Duncan Brumby, University College London

A new app is about to come on the market with promises to dramatically increase the speed at which you read. Spritz is a text streaming technology that allows you to read a sentence, one word at a time. Each word is shown for only a brief flash, in the same place on a screen, before the next appears.

Up to 1,000 words can be shown every minute, which would allow you to race through an entire novel in just 90 minutes. This could revolutionise the way we read, particularly on small-screen devices, such as smartphones and smartwatches.

How it works

When we read, our eyes normally make a series of brief pauses to extract information before moving on. These are referred to as eye movement fixations and saccades. It is only during fixations that the eye processes what is before it.

Spritz allows you to read faster by presenting words in the same place on the screen. This means that the eye can remain in the same spot and does not have to waste time making lengthy saccades to get to the next word.

When we read we have to recognise words. Spritz supports this by focusing our attention on the most informative part of a word so that we recognise it quickly – the word’s optimal recognition position. This is done by highlighting the letter that should be fixated in a different colour to the rest. Doing this grabs our attention and makes us fixate at that point.

Spritz also takes into account some of the factors that explain why we don’t fixate on each word for the same length of time. Rather than reading each letter in a word, our visual system is able to process common words as whole units, using the context of the text and the overall shape of the word as clues to aid recognition. This means that words that are very similar to each other in shape, like “bed” and “fed”, will require more time to process than words that are more distinct, like “decide”. Spritz therefore slows down when displaying very short words and speeds up for words that are four to seven letters long.

Reading or skimming?

Reading is more than just moving your eyes across a page. It is a cognitive activity. Our brain is busy processing the meaning of the words that have been read. For demanding content or tasks, this cognitive processing can take time. We naturally compensate for this by lingering on some words for longer than others to give our brains time to process the meaning of what we are reading.

The spritz website hints that some in-house testing has been done and claims people are able to perform well when tested for their comprehension and recall of a text that they have just “spritzed”.

But there’s a potential problem with treating all words equally and pushing everything through a high-speed funnel. Experiments using Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), participants have demonstrated attentional blink. They were more likely to miss something important because their attention is occupied by something else that they had just experienced. For example, if you’ve just read an emotionally charged word such as “coffin” or “murder”, you’re more likely to miss something important if it occurs very soon afterwards.

The current system doesn’t appear to offer any deeper adaption to the content that is being presented. It doesn’t slow down if a main character dies suddenly, or a complex idea is presented in a sentence. This is not so surprising as this would be an extremely difficult technological problem to solve.

Spritz does slow down at the end of sentences to provide the reader with a little extra time to process the sentence that has just been read. But this might not be sufficient. In fact, readers frequently re-read sections of text when it did not make complete sense on the first pass –- something that is not possible with this system.

Spritz users might find themselves missing important information that they would have caught with regular reading as a result.

So while this technology could open up fantastic opportunities for reading small snippets of text, such as a tweet, on a very small screen, there’s probably some way to go in the development of the technology before you’d want to read War and Peace on a smart watch.

Anna L Cox receives funding from the EPSRC.

Duncan Brumby University College London. He receives funding from the EPSRC.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Sabbatical week 6: Can #DigitalEpiphanies arise from insight into our behaviours or do we need disruption too?

Having just read a blog post by ThinkProductive’s founder Graham Allcott has got me thinking about where we started from with the Digital Epiphanies project  In Graham’s blogpost he talks about epiphanies he’s experienced over the past month as a result of some personal challenges, and the changes he intends to make to both work and non-work aspects of his life. 

This has reminded me of how our ideas on the Digital Epiphanies project were inspired by Jane McGonigal’s TED talk where she talks about the top 5 regrets of the dying

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

She also talks about the experience of post-traumatic growth.  This is a positive change that occurs in response to a highly challenging life experience.  Instead of being paralysed by stress when faced with difficulties, those who experience post-traumatic growth reflect on their priorities and change their lives. It seems that the traumatic event motivates them to live a life with fewer regrets

We wondered whether we could use digital technologies to give people the opportunity to reflect upon the way they live their lives and consider whether their actions are in line with their own values.  Could we facilitate post-traumatic growth without the trauma?

Personal informatics tools are a range of technologies that enable people to track aspects of their lives.  We’ve been investigating whether personal informatics tools can give people digital epiphanies (moments of insight about their digital habits).  Given our focus on work-life balance, we’ve been thinking a lot about work-related digital activities that seem to take up lots of our time and invade our non-work time - the most obvious candidate being email.  We’ve also considered non-work activities that people often engage in when they feel that they should be working such as social networking.   Many of the existing personal informatics tools that track how you spend your time on your digital technologies include some measure of productivity i.e. they try to make explicit whether you’re spending your time effectively.  They do this by classifying activities as productive (e.g. working on a word document), neutral (the  default setting for email and scheduling activities) or highly distracting (social networking sites). The implication is  of course that we should minimise our time on email and social networking sites so that we can spend our time doing more “real work”.  This sounds like good advice, as long as we maintain firm boundaries between work and non-work and don’t let work grow to take up more and more of our time.  And that’s not always easy, particularly with smartphones beeping with every email that lands in our inboxes.  It’s worth remembering I think that one of the top 5 regrets of the dying was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”.

 At the start of this post I mentioned Graham’s blogpost in which he argues that “disruptive times in your life are where you see the bigger picture from. Disruptive doesn’t  mean ‘bad’ it just means ‘different from the everyday’.” This has made me think.  For technology to really create digital epiphanies that can make us think about whether our current habits and behaviours are in line with our values, perhaps we need more than the data collection and opportunities for reflection that personal informatics tools can provide.  Perhaps we need disruption to our everyday activities to have a real epiphany. Sometimes this might be a nagging feeling that things are not quite right. Or a complaint from a family member that we’re working too much.  Could a technology provide the disruption?

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Sabbatical week 5: going dark

Switching off, going dark, saying no.  These are all phrases that relate to good advice about how to get things done, or more to the point, how to avoid being distracted and concentrate on the things you want or need to work on.  This week I’m trying to carve out time by switching off email and avoiding other forms of digital communications so I can concentrate on the huge pile of tasks I have to get through.  This thing is that I’m finding it really difficult.  I mean *really* difficult. 

I started off by deciding that I was going to take my own advice and try a once-a-day email strategy (Bradley, Brumby, Cox and Bird (2013) How to Manage Your Inbox: Is a Once a Day Strategy Best?).  I even scheduled it in my day.  Inspired by a blog post by Think Productive’s Graham Alcott ( I decided to dedicate the morning to important tasks , check email at lunchtime, and then use the afternoons for more communal activities such as meetings. 

Just 24hours in and it all went wrong when I had to check my email first thing as was expecting to receive a file from a colleague which I needed to work on.  As the 47 emails piled into my inbox I found it impossible to ignore them. 

I’d successfully ignored them the previous night when doing the same thing.  That time I’d used the snooze function in my GTD outlook add-in that enables you to snooze a message until the following day.  But this time the snooze button didn’t seem appropriate.  I didn’t want every email from yesterday to disappear until tomorrow.  So it sat there in my inbox, looking at me, and it was all of 3 minutes before I started going through it (I’m addicted to having inbox at zero).  90 minutes later I had answered emails, added things to my to-do list, and deleted a whole bunch.  What I hadn’t done was work on the document I had been waiting for!!

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Sabbatical week 3: second screening and media multitasking

In recent years there has been a profound shift in the way that people consume television programmes. We’re no longer constrained to 4 or 5 channels on the single TV in the living room. With the rise of internet TV we can use a mobile device, such as laptop or tablet computer, to watch our favourite television show whenever we like.  But look around the average living room and what are people doing? They’re no longer glued to the box in the corner but are shifting their attention across multiple devices: keeping up with others through email and social networking sites, as well playing games and looking up information (Müller, Gove, & Webb, 2012; Stawarz, Cox, Bird, & Benedyk, 2013).

Encouraged by a friend who loves x-factor and her husband who works for a (competitor) UK TV channel, I subscribed to the x-factor app on Saturday (for research purposes!!!).  There’s loads of video content on the app which I’ve not looked at. The bit that I played around with, the 5th judge, only appears when the show is live.  As each act does their audition the app offers you the chance to vote. If you log in via facebook then you can also see whether your friends voted ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

But I guess the truth is that I don’t really watch x-factor, in fact I don’t often really watch any TV.  More frequently you’ll find that it’s on in the background whilst I sit on the sofa and do my emails. But what I discovered yesterday was that this app is working really hard to stop me doing this by demanding my attention.  It talks to me and tells me what the majority of 5th judges have decided, thus prompting me to interact with it.  And just when the adverts come on and I think I can dedicate my attention to my email, it asks me questions and makes a ticking clock noise that suggests that I only have a limited time in which to give my response - who can resist that?? Companion apps like this are really successful in keeping the viewers attention on the TV programme and preventing them from switching to their email or social networking sites. 

This week I also came across a startup called CanFocus .  They’ve designed a button that switches all your email, phone and IM statuses to “do not disturb” so that you can focus on work and “become a productivity superhero”.  There’s been many a situation where I’ve sat down with the idea of watching something, only to be distracted by a desire to engage with a digital device.  I think I need one of these to help me resist temptations to engage in work when I’m supposed to be doing non-work!

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Sabbatical week 1: decisions decisions

I’m on sabbatical for the next term.  Many academics take this opportunity to relocate to another university, often one in another country, for a change of scenery and an opportunity to recharge their batteries.  This isn’t something that’s open to me given that I have two young children and a partner with a fulltime job that doesn’t provide the same opportunity for a paid sabbatical.  As a result, I have a term without teaching and (most of my) admin duties.  It seems challenging to make the most of this opportunity so that I look back on this time and feel that it was really different in some way from any other term.  Given that a change is as good as a rest, how am I going to change things without changing things in my personal life too much?

In order to help me decide what to do I talked to some friends and colleagues and also posted the question on facebook.  I got a bunch of interesting suggestions:

So what did I settle on?

  1.  Blogging (suggested by Charlene Jennett) - hence this post.  I’m going to write something every week.
  2. I have some short trips planned to give some talks
  3. Maria Kutar suggested life-logging, which given my current interest in personal  informatics tools, is also something i’m going to add to my list.
  4. Paul Marshal’s suggestion of  juggling might morph into ‘juggling work-life balance in new ways’, probably not quite what he had in mind, but I’m going to try out a few things, including Steve Payne’s suggestion of time off from facebook and email!,
  5.  Jo Iacovides suggested playing video games.
  6. And Lisa Tweedie and Ann Blandford suggested voluntary work

Best get busy then!

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I thought nothing ever disappeared from the internet!

It seems as though every day we are being warned that once something is on the internet it never really disappears.  Although I can find articles written about me 9 years ago unfortunately I can’t find my new webpages (and nor can anyone else!) because the powers that be have changed a single character in the URL!  They’ve decided that underscores are out of fashion and hyphens are the new black!  So my webpage is now at The cost of this tiny change? My business cards need re-printing, URLs on posters being displayed at CHI2013 won’t work, and my colleagues and are have to go through all our webpages updating the links. 

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Expensive slip

My OH bought me a coffee this morning using his chip-and-pin card.  The waiter handed him the machine, he entered his PIN, pressed enter, and handed the machine back to the waiter.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Well, the machine hadn’t been asking for the PIN, it was asking how much tip he would like to give.  So now, not only did we have a 4 figure bill for a couple of coffees, he’d told this waiter the pin for his card!

The waiter said that my OH wasn’t even the first person to do this.  Last week, someone had made the same error, but had also gone as far as entering their PIN the 2nd time to actually pay.  The waiter had chased the customer into the street to explain to him that he’d paid over £2,000 for his lunch!

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She’s been at it again!  When Sarah’s not writing high quality papers that are shortlisted for the Human Factors Prize Competition, she’s writing another comedy set for London’s Bright Club.  Watch it - you know you wanna!

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The true course of scientific research

Brian Romans’ blogpost that he wrote in response to that of Chris Chambers discusses the frequent reality of  the course of scientific research.  It’s perhaps even an understatement to say that things don’t always work out quite the way you expect them to. Brian argues that there’s a lot to be learned from a piece of research that ‘fails’ and that “stumbling about” can sometimes mean that you stumble into something significant.  As Daniel Richardson’s rather honest account makes clear, this way of talking about the process of research is in stark contrast to the way we teach it:

"It generally begins at a conference bar or through an email with a friend when we’ll come up with a half-formed idea and we won’t have any idea what we’re doing. We’ll plunge through the literature, we’ll revise, we’ll completely change the focus, or do one experiment that won’t work but then something strange will happen and we’ll investigate that instead. It’s a collaborative, shoddy, directionless sort of exploration, completely different from the very clean, straightforward way that we teach research."

It’s not just that we teach research as though it were a very linear process, but it’s also the way we usually report it in papers, theses, talks etc.  I remember being a grad student and wondering how on earth I was ever going to create a thesis that hung together, out of a patchwork of studies with unpredicted results. More recently, it felt rather unnatural at first to describe a ”failed” experiment in my talk last week at CHI2012.  On the one hand it didn’t contribute anything to the theory being put forward in the paper, but, on the other, it was important to demonstrate how our original ideas (about how challenge leads to increased experience of immersion in videogames) were just wrong.

Having spent a few moments myself in a conference bar last week, I’m full of enthusiasm and half-formed ideas, which I hope to investigate over the coming months.  Rather than being daunted though about whether experimental results will work out as I expect them to, I’m already looking forward to the unpredictable journey ahead and the challenge of weaving together an interesting story out of whatever happens….perhaps even in time for the CHI2013 deadline.

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This week, Sarah Wiseman did a stand-up routine at UCL’s Bright Club, “the thinking person’s variety night, blending comedy, music, art, new writing, science, performance, and anything else that can happen on a stage.”  This was her first attempt at describing her own PhD research, whilst also trying to be funny. Those of us who have seen her talk before had an inkling that she might be rather good at this, but even so, the fact that she wrote the material and produced such a fantastic performance in under two weeks is impressive.  Personally, I can’t wait for the next one!  No pressure Sarah!

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