RSVP – End of the codex?

December 12, 2006

I recently talked about ICUE, a company developing a reader application for mobile phones. One of the presentation modes used in the ICUE applications, alongside manual and ticker-tape scrolling, was Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, or RSVP.

RSVP has been around for a while but is only now on the point of becoming widespread. A simple RSVP example is shown here, courtesy of

Studies at the University of Wichita, among others, have shown that readers attain the same level of comprehension using RSVP at 250 WPM as they do at their own speed on traditionally-presented text. Admittedly, most readers report that they don’t enjoy the experience, but if their comprehension is at the same level, it’s a matter of getting used to the new format.

Devices and programs for reading ebooks have so far stuck closely to the old model: make it look enough like a pbook and hopefully people will get used to it. But this is technologically and philosophically unnecessary: the core of a literary work is the words it is composed of: the way in which these words are presented is not (usually) part of that information (concrete poetry and certain experimental literary works aside). So RSVP presents an equally valid means of reading – one which can reduce the need for page-sized, blocky ereaders (an RSVP reader would work well on the screen of an iPod, or, as shown by ICUE, on a mobile phone).

Conceptually, RSVP text moves more towards film: a continual stream, in which it is harder to go back, simpler to go with the flow, to forge ahead in the torrent of words. One might not wish to read a textbook or a complex work in such a way, but simple stories can carry us along. Different literary techniques might evolve through RSVP technology: repetition becomes harder for the eye to skip over so emphasis and ennui are easier for author to enforce on the reader [repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition repetition see?].

Try it for yourself – there are a wealth of free downloads out there to experiment with the technology: RocketReader, BookMuncher, RapidReader among them. A comparison table is available here.

1 Comment

  1. […] That said, I know the difficulty of reading scrollable documents – I frequently find that I lose my place when it is time to scroll down, whereas a page layout seems to help the brain keep its place, knowing that the physical position of the reading point is not going to change in relation to its frame. But surely, there must be a compromise? Does anyone know any alternate methods (such as RSVP)? […]

    Pingback by Notebook » Papering over the cracks — May 15, 2007 @ 12:48 pm

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