Velocity reading - Catch up with your Instapaper queue

Could you read faster one word at a time?

Listening to an interview with Matthew Bischoff on this CMD+Space episode, Myke Hurley and him started talking about this new app that help you read faster. I was on the bus with the phone in my coat pocket so I couldn't even start to understand how this Rapid Serial Visual Presentation technique works. I had to pause the podcast and check out the show notes to see how an iPhone app would manage to make you read faster by flashing a succession of words rapidly, one at a time. This sounded to me like a Clockwork Orange method.

Velocity is not an app that screenshots well. Going to the App Store listing all you see is a minimalist iOS 7 interface that seems to integrate with reading later services like Instapaper, Pocket and Readability; so it must be an app for proper reading. What you really want to do is to look for a link with a video demo to see the app in action. That will be a genuine brain-melting surprise. I told you it didn't screenshot very well.

One word at a time

What Velocity is doing here is taking the each article you keep on your reading queue, strip it from its format and split it into small chunks. When you tap on play, the app will start flashing one word at a time at a manic speed until you realise that all those words together make sense and you have finished reading the article in record time. The idea is to force you to break the habit of reading out loud the text on your head, feeding you individual words too fast for your inner-voice to keep up to.

The idea sounds exciting and it's worth trying just for the experience. I admit I haven't gone back much to Velocity since it launched in September but I like to do some 15-minute sessions of power-reading every now and then. The main issue I have is using Velocity in public. Even at home, I feel strangely separated from the world around me and I'm sure I look bonkers. I just don't want to freak out other people waiting for the bus doing this. Apparently, some people use it to read on the treadmill, but I would be too shy to read like this at the gym.

I haven't seen anyone using Velocity in public but I can imagine it's like seeing Keanu Reeves learning martial arts on The Matrix: a person disconnected from the world while his brain is being shot by a machine-gun of knowledge at a speed he cannot keep up to. In practice it also works a bit like it: this is extreme focused reading. Unlike a common page of text with sentences and paragraphs, in Velocity's presentations you cannot miss a word or you will loose the context and complete meaning of the sentence. There's no way you can suck all the information in this post in less than 40 seconds and peek to see what's on the TV at the same time. You would need to start all over again.

Although I didn't find this reading method very comfortable, I have to agree that it's got better over time. If I go to the video demo on the developer site, the speed is too slow and just want to increase it. One tap away from the visualisation screen there's a slider to adjust the speed of your reading, measured in words per minute. I get the impression you will naturally want to speed it up a little to find the right balance between reading time and cognition, the level where you can still make sense of what the writer intended.

Why would anyone go through the trouble of creating a reading service client in the first place? This is one app where you can have both Instapaper and Pocket together under the same visualisation options — Velocity comes with a dark, white and sepia theme and a bunch of typeface options. But of course, the main reason is to showcase the rapid presentation technique with text you would normally want to read and just keep saving to read later until it becomes stale. This is for me a noble cause that justifies the small strain in my eyes.