Today's mobile phones are as versatile as ever, but you wouldn't ever want to read a magazine article or book on that tiny little screen...

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Today’s mobile phones are as versatile as ever, but you wouldn’t ever want to read a magazine article or book on that tiny little screen. Or would you?

Researchers at Stanford University are testing a technology that allows people to quickly absorb large amounts of text.

The research, based on techniques used to teach speed reading, has led to a new service called BuddyBuzz (www.buddybuzz.net).

“BuddyBuzz is the fastest way to read off mobile phones,” said BJ Fogg, director of research and design at the university’s Persuasive Technology Lab. “It cues up content, mostly off the Internet, and allows you to read it on your phone.”

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Even with newer mobile devices with larger screens, the amount of text that can be displayed at any one time is limited, forcing people to scroll or tab from paragraph to paragraph or page to page.

BuddyBuzz’s technology largely avoids those issues. Known as RSVP — for rapid serial visual presentation — it quickly flashes words on a screen one at a time.

The streaming process lets you stare at the screen and just absorb the text, without having to shift your eyes back and forth. The technology also allows the typeface size of text to be larger because just a word at a time is on the screen.

500 words per minute

“At first, it seems kind of staccato,” Fogg said. “But once you move the speed up, to about 400 or 500 words [per minute], it feels like a stream. And it forces you to focus on that stream. And pretty soon that stream starts recompiling itself in your head as information. There’s this sensation where you’re just staring at the words and you get it.”

Learning to read in RSVP takes practice. And research on the technology is mixed.

Some users find they can read more content with less eyestrain. Others, though, don’t like losing control over the reading experience and not having the ability to jump around within the text.

“Some people do it real easily,” said Fogg, who’s been using RSVP for four years. “And some people just can’t put the words together.”

Originally developed for psychological testing, RSVP has been around for decades. Most recently it has been embraced by the speed-reading industry. A company called StepWare, for example, uses it as the foundation for its speed-reading software.

Fogg became enamored with RSVP in the late 1990s while director of research at Casio Computer, the maker of watches and other portable digital devices.

Fogg wanted to use RSVP to deliver content with Casio products, but the company never embraced the idea.

Fogg took up the technology again about a year ago at his Stanford lab, which studies how technology products — from Web sites to mobile-phone software — can influence people’s attitudes and behaviors.

“We don’t just want to create a reading system because it’s a cool thing to do,” he said. “Part of the motivation is to motivate people to read more. But more importantly, we want to create a platform that we can do research on.”

To use BuddyBuzz, users create an account at the Web site and download a small application to their Web-enabled phone. Not all mobile phones work with the service, but the site lists compatible phones.

For now, BuddyBuzz is serving up content from Reuters and CNet. The lab recently signed on some high-profile bloggers, including the crew that produces BoingBoing.net.

Fogg said Stanford also loaded books and other content on the phones as experiments.

“Isn’t that a great idea, to be able to have chapters of your textbook or novels on your phone?” Fogg asked.

“What I found, in reading a novel, is that at the beginning I had to go pretty slowly so I could get the context. But once I got the context and I saw the scenery in my head, I could speed it up.”

The lab has also been experimenting with a social-networking element.

Researchers are exploring the idea of reading groups, bound together by a common thread such as a hobby or work situation. People would receive content based on ratings or recommendations from others in the group.

Already there is commercial interest in the technology, though Fogg is circumspect about which companies have approached the lab.

For now, the lab’s focus is on research, but he said researchers are excited about the possibilities.

The lab is studying the market potential for BuddyBuzz.

“We think there’s definitely commercial potential for delivering text content to mobile phones, and we’re exploring some of those options,” he said.

“There are members of the team who would love to spin this out to a company.”