Nov. 12, 2012 -- iPads and other tablets with backlit screens may allow millions of people with "low vision" to read faster and easier, a new study suggests.
Low vision is an umbrella term for people who still have trouble reading, watching TV, or performing other daily activities despite glasses, contact lenses, medication, or even surgery. For people in this situation, the only options left are often magnifying glasses and low-vision aids, many of which are bulky and not that easy to use.
Enter iPads, Kindles, and other backlit tablets.
The new study shows that these devices may allow some people to read faster and more comfortably.
The findings will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology in Chicago.
The study was made up of two experiments. In the first, 62 people read three articles from The New York Times in the print version of the newspaper, as computer printouts, and on an Apple iPad 2.
More than half of those in the study had evidence of macular eye disease. The macula is the part of the eye that allows you to see fine detail.
According to the findings, readers read faster on the iPad 2 than the newspaper or printed article. This improvement was most pronounced among people who had low vision in both eyes.
In the second experiment, 100 people read a book chapter in these ways:
In a "real" book
On an iPad 2 with 12-point and 18-point fonts
On an Amazon Kindle with 12-point or 18-point fonts
The iPad was set at maximum background brightness. The Kindle used in the new study did not have a backlight, although the new Kindle Fire does come with one.
The people in the study all read faster on the iPad 2 than on the Kindle. The gap widened when the iPad font was magnified to 18 points.
People read 42 more words per minute on average with the iPad 2 on 18-point font compared to the book. By contrast, a 12 word-per-minute gain was seen among those reading on the Kindle in the same font.
The backlight boosts contrast sensitivity or the ability to see an object stand out from its background. Many people with low vision lose this ability, says researcher Daniel Roth, MD. He is an associate clinical professor at Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine in New Brunswick, N.J.
"The findings apply to anyone with compromised reading vision who has difficulty seeing letters or words," he says. "The magnified font and backlight allows them to improve their reading ability and comfort."
Aging baby boomers with vision issues are likely pretty tech-savvy, and these tablets are very user-friendly, he says. Many times, these people just give up on reading, but they don't have to.