If inventors and entrepreneurs ever compiled a list of devices so well-designed that imagining better ones would not be a good use of one's time, such a list would probably include the ball, the bicycle and the book.
All things being equal, instructions are not necessary to use any of these things. Practice, yes, but balls, bikes and books are pretty much self-explanatory. Using them comes naturally.
All things are not equal, of course. For people with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, reading is a major challenge. Woodside entrepreneur Nick Lum came up with an improvement for online reading, one soon to be available for bound books as well: color.
Mr. Lum's company, BeeLine Reader, is two years old, but he was honored in September by the Tech Museum of Innovation. And a few weeks ago, the state librarian announced availability of his reading application to public libraries statewide.
With BeeLine Reader engaged, under the control of an algorithm, colors pass over words like a wave, line by line and paragraph by paragraph. For example, using three colors -- black, blue and red -- if the words at the beginning of a line are black, they will fade to blue as the eye moves right. The blue returns gradually to black and then along comes red, which deepens and then returns to black and the cycle starts again.
The color at the end of a line wraps to the beginning of the next line, establishing a visual connection. The app includes options for choosing colors and intensity.
Mr. Lum says research has long shown that one's eyes don't always move straight across the page while reading. They stop and start and people can have difficulty efficiently finding the beginning of the next line.
A simmering idea
Mr. Lum, now 34, recalls first thinking about ways to improve reading skills while talking with a friend in a psychology class at Swarthmore College, where he majored in economics with a linguistics minor. After graduating he went to law school at the University of California at Los Angeles. As a lawyer for the Silicon Valley office of McDermott Will & Emery, he worked on international tax law.
But ideas have a way of percolating. "I thought a lot about it and came up with this idea of a color gradient that moves from line to line," he says. Research confirming the theories underlying his product came later, he says, and he has acquired patents. In effect, BeeLine Reader allows the eyes to "make a beeline" to where they need to be to continue reading, he says.
Mr. Lum founded the company in 2013. He is the chief executive; his cousin, Andrew Cantino, is the company's other employee and chief technical officer. For a time, as participants in the Intel Education Accelerator program for start-ups, the company had an office in Redwood City. But now it's "sort of" a virtual company, he says.
"It's a lot more exciting than typical corporate tax law work," he says of his current occupation. The product launched by accident. While still employed as an attorney, he posted a link to the beta version of the BeeLine app on a list at the Hacker News online forum, based in Mountain View. He went to lunch, he says, and came back to find his post at the top of the list. After a week, his post had 250,000 views, and users in Europe, Australia and the United States. "It was great," he says.
Mr. Lum lives in Woodside Glens with his wife Kathryn Gin Lum, an assistant professor in religious studies at Stanford University, and their daughter.
BeeLine now has 50,000 users in 120 countries using 60 different languages, Mr. Lum says. "It works in every language that we know of," he says.
Recognition for BeeLine includes Stanford's Social Entrepreneur Challenge award in 2014; an award for educational applications from Dell Computer, also in 2014; and the 2015 Microsoft Education Award presented at the Tech Museum in San Jose.
The Microsoft award recognized BeeLine for its global impact on students "afflicted with learning differences or impairments, and students who are successful readers but spend excessive time reading on-screen text inefficiently." The Tech Museum statement goes on to cite a study in the San Bernardino City Unified School District that showed BeeLine increasing reading fluency by 53 percent for young readers.
The California State Library system recently made BeeLine Reader available to public libraries throughout the state. In a Dec. 14 email, provided to the Almanac by Menlo Park Library Director Susan Holmer, State Librarian Greg Lucas wrote to California librarians.
"While of value to readers of all ages, this technology is especially helpful for children who are learning to read, and readers with dyslexia, attention deficits or vision difficulties," Mr. Lucas wrote. "Adding this technology could be another way libraries meet the needs of their communities and continue to demonstrate their unique value."
"We're really excited about (this) roll-out," Mr. Lum says, "because it will enable so many more people to use the program."
Asked if she plans to deploy BeeLine in the Menlo Park Library, Ms. Holmer said it seems like an interesting product. "I think were going to certainly try it" she said.
An analyst at the San Mateo County Library -- part of the Peninsula Library System that includes libraries in Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley -- said that while the library is aware of BeeLine, there are no plans to test it in the first quarter of 2016.
BeeLine has users who pay for licenses and others who use the app for free, a gift from paying customers who have the option to subsidize licenses for low-income communities -- "Buy one, give five," is how Mr. Lum put it.
Asked about use by prisoners, Mr. Lum notes that 50 percent of inmates are reportedly dyslexic. "We are actively looking into getting in prison education," he says.
The application currently works on Amazon's Kindle reader, and on OverDrive e-books in Peninsula libraries, Mr. Lum says. For more information, go to beelinereader.com.