Could wearable technology track our reading habits?

With the recent intense interest surrounding the Apple Watch and what it might or might not do (I can hardly wait to see one in person), more general questions about wearable technology in daily life are going to be inevitable in the coming months. With apps and devices enabling us to track our steps taken, miles covered, hours slept, and calories burned — could our wearable devices not start measuring more cognitive functions? What if wearable tech — smart glasses, for example — track how and what we read? The New Scientist (“Fitbit for the mind: Eye-tracker watches your reading”) mentions some intriguing new research on this front:

google glass reading

“‘ A cognitive activity tracker’ developed by Kai Kunze at Osaka Prefecture University in Japan can tell how many words we read how often and how fast we read, and even whether we are skim reading or actually concentrating on the content. It could also generate summaries of documents as you read them by logging which passages your eyes dwell on … Kunze is taking the technology in a different direction. In tests on volunteers wearing infrared eye-tracking glasses, his team found that their software could count the number of words read with an accuracy of about 94 per cent, and tell how fast you were reading, purely by looking at the movement of the eyes. By asking their volunteers to read different types of materials — novels, fashion magazines, newspapers, research papers and textbooks — they have shown that these various media can be discerned near perfectly from the way readers’ eyes move around their telltale layouts.”

Thus far, we’ve seen the most research devoted to eye tracking and advertising and marketing and even video games (for example, check out this eye-opening post from KISSMetrics). But the possibilities for delving into our reading habits are so intriguing. Could eye-tracking glasses lend insight into what we read, how long we read, what keeps us engrossed, and what causes our attention spans to wander? The applications for education are even more encouraging —

“Or, says Kunze, publishers could work out if textbook designs need rethinking by seeing how readers navigate their pages. If the software knows what the document is — a novel being read on a Kindle, say — then more advanced features can be used. ‘It could lead to adaptive reading materials in which the computer recognises I have trouble understanding a particular word and changes the text in real time to give me the definition in the next sentence,’”

Could this kind of adaptive reading content and those kinds of insight in turn influence our reading habits? I think it could. I use a Fibit, and that subtle nudge of how many steps left till the 10,000 step goal usually is reminder enough to take the stairs instead of the elevator — could a similar nudge encourage more reading time?
Kobo’s Reading Life deserves credit for being one of the first to make a push into reading data — and this might just be the beginning.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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