Bits and Bytes instead of a Bookshelf

Recently, I gave an interview for the German online issue of the Scientific American (Spectrum der Wissenschaft) for a special about reading habits (in German, paywall).

As I’m interested in the topic, I often hear that “endless scrolling” is bad as it destroys the mental map we make of books and pages or that reading from backlit screens is eye-straining inducing headaches. Personally, I cannot really understand these complaints. I’m doing most of my reading on tablet devices or computer screens though I never experienced these problems directly.

However, active reading -the process of working with the text through highlight, notes, marks- is still better on paper. In Human Computer interaction terms, people talk about affordances. The affordance of paper is very high for active reading. So I find myself still printing out drafts or review papers, especially if it’s a close call and I need to concentrate on the contents. In later case, I even like to change the reading environment, moving away from my laptop/desktop to a meeting table or a bank outside. I believe this helps me concentrate, deliberately shutting out any distractions.

We just started to modify the reading experience using electronic devices. So far most of the applications and reading devices directly mimic the book. We have “ebooks”, “e-reading” software use pages and page turns etc. I believe there is a lot of room for improvement related to reading on screens.

Given the possibility to assess the user’s mental state using Cognitive Activity Recognition, we can change content, structure and style of reading materials dynamically. Most straight forward, if an application detects that a reader looses interest, it could prompt her with an interactive challenge/video or similar. Changing fonts, colors and lettering according to mood and context could be also interesting. There is a fairly new playground opening up for anybody curious and interested in defining new forms of reading.

Interesting further reading:

Shilit et. al. Beyond Paper: Supporting Active Reading with Free Form Digital Ink Annotations

Hartson. Cognitive, physical, sensory, and functional affordances in interaction design

Piper et. al. Tabletop Displays for Small Group Study: Affordances of Paper and Digital Materials