In the US, about 30 million adults struggle with basic literacy. The inability to read proficiently has wide-ranging economic consequences, affecting a person’s ability to get and hold onto a job, as well as increasing the likelihood one would rely on government assistance.
But one tech company believes something as simple as increasing the size of spacing between certain words could improve people’s reading comprehension. Research going back decades has found that “chunking,” a technique that separates text into meaningful units, provides visual cues that help readers better process information.
Grounded in this thinking, San Francisco-based Asymmetrica Labs has created a tool that uses an algorithm to logically insert spaces to websites’ text. A free browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, Asym automatically reformats English text without affecting a site’s overall design.
The image below shows the before and after of Asym’s spacing on a paragraph of text. Quartz is also experimenting by manually adding Asym’s spaces to this article. The effect is subtle, but likely will irk keen-eyed copy editors (sorry!), especially those from the print world who are accustomed to deleting extraneous spaces.
Incubated by PayPal cofounder Max Levchin’s HVF innovation lab, Asymmetrica was founded by neuroscientist Chris Nicholas and Ken Brownfield, who worked with Levchin at PayPal and Slide.
“Some struggling readers, or low-literacy readers, will read one word at a time,” Nicholas tells Quartz. “We’re nudging eye-movement patterns that good readers on their own have done naturally.” He says the technology could also benefit strong readers when they’re tired or under stress and could also improve their reading speeds.
And though Nicolas wouldn’t divulge its “secret sauce,” the extension appears, after a few days of testing, to add spaces in front of words like “and,” “to,” and “of,” breaking down sentences into digestible units, akin to the effect of punctuation and paragraph breaks.
One drawback to the technology is that it won’t be readily available on mobile devices, since their browsers don’t yet support extensions.
To make money, Asymmetrica wants to strike partnerships with publishers, such as Facebook, to implement the technology on the server side so the text automatically parses without requiring readers to install an external tool. It’s selling to publishers the idea that improved reading comprehension would lead to increased engagement—a hypothesis it’s yet to test. Plus, Brownfield says its technology could also help publishers make “inroads into low-literacy markets.”
The technology, Brownfield says, can easily scale to other languages that use spaces in their written text (this wouldn’t apply to Chinese, for example). The startup is also exploring charging people for a more robust version of its extension, offering features such as the ability to change the sizing of the spaces. But the company recognizes that the people who would benefit most from the technology come from low-income backgrounds and likely wouldn’t see the value in paying for its extension.
“The reason we’re doing this is because we really want to improve literacy,” says Nicholas. “The people who are low literacy, and/or struggling readers, those are the ones who need the most help.”