The idea has been well received by reading experts, too.
“Most of the academic research is figuring out entirely what your eyes are going to do on one line,” said psychologist and Microsoft researcher Kevin Larson. “That has been such a challenge that it's rare for anyone to pay much attention to what happens during that line return movement.”
At the University of Texas at Austin, Randolph Bias has studied the optimal length of lines of text for reading comprehension and speed. The two are generally at odds: Short lines make for a quick and accurate return (the movement is easier because it allows our eyes to take a greater downward angle than if the line were longer.) The downside is that because our brains process information during return sweeps, shorter lines don't afford us that time. We also don’t get to take full advantage of peripheral vision – which is key. (He cites this as the problem with Spritz, the reading technology where single words rapidly flash before a reader.)
“Human beings have evolved to be able to take in 12 to 16 letters—at least—at a fixation,” Bias explained to me. This is known as our span of perception. “Just as some people are taller, some people can take in more at a time.”
So, long lines of text are better if you can minimize line-transition problems. And using color gradients seems to be one way to do that. Last year, optometrist Carole Hong did an initial, small study (not peer-reviewed, for the company) where she watched the eye movements of people as they read with BeeLine, and most of them skipped fewer lines–and experienced fewer backward saccades–than when reading in black text.
“BeeLine gives the reader a cue as to where that next line is – an excellent, unavoidable cue,” explained Bias. “I think that's brilliant. It might be the first in a series of creative ways we break out of traditional formats of text – where we take full advantage of online capabilities instead of just plopping a book into a doc file.”
Beeline launched softly, accidentally, on the site Hacker News in 2013. At that point it was just a bookmarklet (the lamest version of a browser plugin), and the first version of the chrome extension. Even still, the concept captured enormous attention in the ADHD community on Tumblr.
“It wasn't envisioned as an assistive technology,” said Lum, “but after the launch on Hacker News, we got all kinds of emails from people with ADHD. The folks on Tumblr are heavily in the ADHD and dyslexia camps.”
The color gradients might be helpful not just with return sweeps, but simply in keeping people’s attention – so they’re less likely to dart from tab to tab. Bias sees an important role for this technology in the era of waning attention spans. He’s 64 years old and describes himself as a “slow but good reader” who “can sometimes stay with something for a long time.” But in recent years, he’s sensed a decline in his attention, and has a feeling that this is a growing problem. “Can we multitask?” he asks, rhetorically. “The research, more and more, shows that we all suck at it.”