Making Facebook more interactive for Blind

By : |April 5, 2016 0

Can you imagine Facebook without photos? A big No, I know. Facebook undoubtedly owes much of its irresistibility to an endless stream of pictures that are uploaded every day.  Yet for millions of blind and visually impaired people, that’s been the state of Facebook for over a decade.

Rectifying this, Facebook is beginning to automatically start describing the content of photos to blind and visually impaired users through automatic alternative text. The feature was created by Facebook’s accessibility team, led by Jeff Wieland, a former user researcher in Facebook’s product group.

Facebook’s new automatic alternative text, or automatic alt text, which is coming to iOS today and later to Android and the web, will generate photo descriptions for users relying on a screen reader—a tool for the visually impaired that reads the web pages aloud. Users will hear a basic description of the photo such as, “image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors.”

Facebook mentioned in its online statement, “While visual content provides a fun and expressive way for people to communicate online, consuming and creating it poses challenges for people who are blind or severely visually impaired. With more than 39 million people who are blind, and over 246 million who have a severe visual impairment, many people may feel excluded from the conversation around photos on Facebook. We want to build technology that helps the blind community experience Facebook the same way others enjoy it.”

The new feature relies on Facebook’s visual recognition engine, an artificial intelligence-powered technology that processes every single photo and video uploaded to the social network. So far, Facebook has trained the engine to recognize dozens of items—car, mountain, tree, sunset, basketball court, ice cream, pizza. Automatic alt text then mentions those objects in the special captions it generates for the blind. The initial version of the technology will be in English; other languages will be added later on.

Such descriptions will allow blind users to join conversations they were previously left out of, says Matt King, an accessibility specialist in user interface engineering and a member of Facebook’s accessibility team. The new tool promotes “equal access to information for people who are blind,” he says, which is especially important to young blind users whose peers live on social media.

Facebook is taking a conservative approach to adding more items, favoring precision over quantity for fear of misleading visually impaired users. Matt King says, “Inclusion is really powerful and exclusion is really painful. The impact of doing something like this is really telling people who are blind, your ability to participate in the social conversation that’s going on around the world is really important to us. It’s saying as a person, you matter, and we care about you. We want to include everybody — and we’ll do what it takes to include everybody.”

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