While a student at Swarthmore College early in the millennium, Sacramento native Nick Lum became consumed by the idea that the advent of digital readers just might offer an opportunity to make reading easier for people with vision or learning impairments.
Almost a decade later, after Lum had pursued a career as a corporate tax attorney in Palo Alto, he asked his second cousin, programmer Andrew Cantino, to help him to make his ideas a reality. The duo’s BeeLine Reader, still in its startup phase, has since won prizes from Dell Computer, Stanford University and most recently a $50,000 award from San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation.
The name isn’t an homage to Lum’s hometown newspaper. Rather, he said, he chose the name because his color-enhanced text helps readers to make a beeline across a digital screen and from the end of one line to the beginning of the next one.
“People are familiar with the line-skipping or line-repeating mistakes,” Lum said. “But a much more common error is one you’re not even aware of when it happens, and it happens all the time. You actually overshoot when you’re moving your eyes from right to left, so instead of landing on the first word of the line, you land on the second, third or fourth word, and then your eyes have to move farther to the left to get all the way back to the edge.”
With BeeLine’s app and browser plug-ins, digital readers would see varying colors or gradations of one color for every word in this column. In studies, Lum said, 85 percent to 90 percent of readers became much more adept at tracking words and sentences.
Initially, Lum and Cantino conceived BeeLine as a tool that would help people with dyslexia, vision problems or other impairments, and studies proved it did. Then educators suggested that they try it out with children just beginning to read, Lum said, so they put it to the test in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. School officials had a first-grade class use BeeLine, and by the end of one month, their reading scores rose by 53 percent.
BeeLine works for the same reason traffic signs and lights are color-coded, said Lum. People grasp color more quickly than they do words, especially when it comes to their peripheral vision.
“If you’re driving down the road and you can see out of the corner of your eye that the light has turned from green to yellow,” Lum said, “you don’t have to look directly at the light to know that’s what happened because your peripheral vision can tell you that. You’re not very good at discerning words out of your peripheral vision, so if you see a word out of the corner of your eye, you actually have to focus so that it’s right in the center of your vision before you can really make out the word.”
Lum and Cantino offer a free version of their plug-in product, available for a limited number of uses each day. Unlimited usage can be had with a subscription of $1 a month, or subscribers can purchase a $2.50 buy-one-get-one-free deal that purchases one license for them and donates five others to low-income schools. iPad users pay a one-time fee for the BeeLine app and can use it to read Kindle books or news articles.
The two cousins have landed a spot in the Intel Education Accelerator in Silicon Valley, so they have received seed funding and are gaining strategic partners in the media and publishing world. In November, they will receive the $50,000 Microsoft Education Award from the Tech Museum of Innovation.
The 34-year-old Lum, a graduate of Mira Loma High School, thinks back to when he first told the world about BeeLine Reader, posting his concept and a link to his website, www.beelinereader.com, on a discussion board for startup ideas. His post skyrocketed to the coveted No. 1 position and held it for a day. The public response moved Lum to quit his job as an attorney and pursue BeeLine Reader full-time.
“The next week, we had about a quarter of a million page views on our website,” Lum said, “and that’s when all the comments started pouring in from people around the world, telling us how helpful it was in helping them read faster or to read period. And, the tool is now used a half-million times a day by readers in about 120 countries, reading in 60 different languages.”