The tech that is helping us to read more

Depending on who you ask, we’re falling out of love with printed books, or we can’t get enough of them. Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that our free time is being fought over by apps, TV screens or work emails.

The publisher’s association reported that consumers are still strongly attached to the printed word and book sales are indeed booming. Yet, as apps and films promise us more immersive experiences (think Netflix’ Bandersnatch), it’s not surprising that entrepreneurs are starting to look at books in the same way. Theoretically, a book should be able to hook you with the story alone.

Yet at MIT, engineers have built a wearable book vest so readers can experience the “emotional and physical state” of the characters. The vest will change your experiences as you read. If the book is set in a desert and the characters are sweltering for example, the vest will heat up. The pages of the book can also change colour to create a mood, as the books that are part of the experiment are fitted with 150 LEDS.

If this sounds like a gimmick that’ll never catch on, there are plenty of less all-encompassing ways startups are trying to disrupt the reading market.

Blinkist is an app that condenses popular nonfiction books into 15 minute audio and readable texts, to help authors read a book a day. Co-founder Holger Seim says the idea for Blinkist came after entering full-time employment and realising he had less time to read, let alone focus on self-education and development. “Our mission is to inspire people to learn something new everyday. Blinkist empowers people to discover new titles, encounter new authors, uncover compelling concepts, and forge out space for reading in their daily lives. We find that if a reader or listener has really loved a book-in-blink, they’ll want to buy the full book to read in more detail.”

He emphasises that Blinkist isn’t about replacing the experience of reading. “We love books. It is precisely this love of books that led us to create Blinkist as a smart tool for the modern reader.”

There’s still very much a place for books in our lives. Tech can help us enjoy books that we feel we no longer have time to read, or we can’t prioritise above our household chores. Seim says Blinkist “takes key ideas from leading titles and presents them in easy-to-digest text and audio, allowing our users to explore them in their own time - whether it’s in the 15 minutes they have before a meeting, or as they commute to and from work.”

“Our users can choose from over 27 categories of non-fiction, ranging from Health & Fitness and Psychology, through to Economics, Productivity & Time Management, and Parenting. No matter which area they want to find out more about, or which aspect of their personal life they want to improve, Blinkist is likely to have the answer and point the user in the right direction.”

Tech will also play an important role when it comes to connecting people to boost reading in the community. ReadWithAudrey is a site that brings people together to read to each other – whether it's a child struggling to get to grips with reading, or an elderly gent in a home. It works by getting matched with someone who enjoys similar books or has similar reading skills or would like to develop their skills.

All parties are then sent the book and they connect using the phone and read to each other. Rob Paul, is the founder of ReadWithAudrey, and began his career as a psychologist. “I really enjoy reading aloud to my children. An interesting book often encourages me to talk with them about my own stories and emotions. And I know that immersion in a good book can help comfort and reinvigorate the mind. It’s the coming together of these different experiences that led me to create Audrey.”

Paul explains that there are many benefits to reading that other “hobbies” like watching Netflix, can’t provide. “Audrey is an invigorating, relaxing, soulful experience where you quickly develop a real sense of connectedness with a stranger. The experience sparks interesting conversations and creates meaningful relationships. We embolden our community to talk about their own stories and emotions. We lift the veil between strangers and remind them how much they have in common. This is materially different from watching Netflix.”

Reading is more of a modern invention than the audiobook, or listening to a narrative, Paul reminds us. “I don’t think people will ever stop reading, but it’s true that people are listening to more audiobooks. They’re a convenient alternative – you can listen whilst commuting to work. The recent growth in audiobooks has attracted lots of commentary around the merits of the different reading mediums. But remember humans have been sharing information orally for thousands of years. The printed word is actually a much more recent invention!”

As well as improving day to day reading, tech can also be used to develop reading ability, especially among children and adults with learning disabilities. When we’re reading, we need to draw on a multitude of skills. We must make connections, understand words, create mental pictures and know how to link subjects. It can take some people longer than others to do this, which is where tools and tech can come in.

Lexplore has developed AI eye tracking software which assesses a child’s reading ability and provides the results in just a few minutes. The purpose of the software is to save hours of the teacher’s time by suggesting what the reading issue is and helping to analyse whether it’s dyslexia or just the child is struggling with a particular word.

Stephen Park at Lexplore explains how it works: “Eye-tracking technology automatically monitors the way the child’s eyes move as they read, registering how long the eyes rest on one word, and how quickly they move forwards or backwards across a series of words.

“Using AI technology, the software provides the results in a matter of minutes, allowing teachers to offer tailored support to address issues and opening up a world of books the child might not otherwise have experienced.”

Park gives an example of one primary school where the test showed how a Key Stage Two girl was finding reading difficult. “She had developed some really effective coping strategies to manage the difficulties she was experiencing so this was something teachers hadn’t spotted before. The pupil is very capable, so now teachers make sure she is given reading material with a high interest level, but a simpler text that she can follow more easily. The school can see whether the interventions they have put in place are making a difference by progress monitoring to see whether the percentile score has changed.  In this case the school could see the interventions were working as they have seen the pupil progress from a 'low' banding, through to 'average' in the space of just seven months, and in that time she has also made a significant improvement in reading speed.”

Boosting reading at a time when our attention spans are being fought over is a good thing. It can complement our lives, and as Seim points out, his app often encourages people to buy the full book after reading an abbreviated version. Learning how to read again will help us to learn and also to switch off. Any tech that supports this, is worth a punt.

If our Live Life Better series has piqued your interest in the senses, check out our upcoming event with sensory experience experts Bompas & Parr.

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