Team Xerox

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It's actually called the Perspective Wall, and it lets you navigate hundreds of Web pages at a time without having to lose sight of any of them. Move to the one you want, and it enlarges while the others shrink. With each page color coded for relevance, it's a skimmer's dream--and the online search result of the future. "Bar charts weren't invented 250 years ago," says Peter Pirolli, Card's fellow psychologist. "Now we take them for granted. The same thing is happening with the computer. We're becoming more visual." And therefore less literate? "It's a different kind of literate culture," Pirolli insists.


Gold's RED team seems to have reached the same conclusion: it's O.K. to skim, and it's O.K. to read pictures instead of text. Its Hyperbolic Reader (based on the hyperbolic tree, a Xerox PARC invention) tells a children's story in Perspective Wall style. Cartoons and speech bubbles grow large as you move a joystick over them, then shrink as you turn to another part of the story's tree. In Fluid Fiction (also created with PARC software), another children's story is told in just 24 sentences. But touch the end of any sentence, and the text parts, revealing a new set of sentence endings. Touch one, and you're down to the story's third layer. The device literally teaches kids to read between the lines.

But in all these inventions and the philosophy behind them, it's hard not to get a sobering sense of the impending death of traditional, text-based linear narrative. Will generations to come ever know the delights of picking up a good book and reading it from start to finish? Or will they rather skim through it on their tablet PCs, Speeder Reading what the computer has predetermined to be the best bits based on their previous preferences, choosing alternative endings, letting the robot dog finish it for them?

On the other hand, we should be glad they're reading at all. The RED team's inventions were a huge hit with the thousands of kids who packed the San Jose, Calif., Tech Museum of Innovation from March to October this year; so much so that the exhibit will tour the country in 2001. "Kids are very accepting of these new forms of reading," says RED researcher Maribeth Back. "We've made the book more responsive, in the same way other electronic appliances they know are. The book form we know starts to look less and less sacred."

Not that those lumps of paper on our shelves have been sacred in this form for very long. It's less than 200 years since the arrival of the novel, and less than 100 since the average best seller came with illustrations. The brave new world of reading under construction at Xerox PARC may be only the latest step in the book's evolution. The more forms it can mutate into, the more likely it is that one of those forms will survive in an age of intensive information foraging and visual literacy. And if that form happens to be Speeder Reader--well, at least you'll have fun teaching your grandchildren how to do saccadic jumps.

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