Interesting product: Bionic Reading

Having spent a while researching the literature on ways that visual landmarks and other text enhancements (and deliberate obfuscations) affect comprehension and recall, I am a little sceptical about the underlying theory for this patented product that is based on the assumption that we read better if the first chunks of each word are bolded, like this. The primary foundation appears to be a 1980 paper that uses gaze duration/eye fixation to predict readability of text. The Bionic Reading product creates artificial fixation points at the start of each word, so the theory seems to be that we can read faster, and recall more as our eyes are guided through the text. I don’t see any mention of any other research on the Bionic Reading site that supports its claims apart from the 1980 paper, but (ironically) maybe it’s because I missed it.

The assumptions may be a bit over-simplistic: we don’t read everything the same way, there are differences in ways that different people read, subject matter matters, intent matters, and so do many other factors. I found that I could grasp the meaning of the sample plain text that they provide on the home page far quicker than I could the bionic text equivalent: it was a small enough chunk that I could absorb the gist of it in a second or so, whereas I had to read the bionic text word by word in order to understand it, which took several seconds. Familiarity matters, though: there are recognition mechanisms at work here, both in making unadorned text easier to grasp (for me), and in learning to read the bionic text. I suspect that, after a while, the (possible) benefits would diminish as we learn to recognize whole words more easily in their modified form. It makes me wonder whether the benefit is similar to that of making a font more difficult to read, for which there is some (contested) evidence that it can improve recall. When we have to try harder to read the text, for some but not all kinds and lengths of text, we tend to recall more. In fact, anything that makes it more likely for us to read something word by word – as long as the flow is not lost – can aid comprehension and recall, under some circumstances.

The product is interesting, though. It provides an API that can be called to convert any text to bionic text, for use (in principle) in any app. It might make an interesting variation on the ways that we are using to modify text in our Landmarks application (for which I claim prior art, having written about this in 2012). Landmarks is intended to make chunks of e-text more recognizable, especially when text reflows, so it isn’t trying to compete in the same territory. However, the ways that the Bionic Reading app make passages of text more distinctive from one another might play a useful part in overcoming the big problem with most e-texts: that everything looks pretty much the same, and there are very few navigational cues, so it’s harder to remember what you read and where you read it.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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