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Automatic Alternative Text Will Help Blind People “See” Facebook

Over the past few years, visual content has become increasingly important as the currency of social media. Pictures and videos make social media visually interesting and engaging. However, for people with no eyesight, it is not easy. And can close them out of the conversation.

This week, Facebook is taking an important step in making photos accessible to people who suffer from severe visual impairments or blindness.

It’s called automatic alternative text, and it reads aloud a brief description of Facebook photos.

The new development uses screen readers, a kind of technology that already works to read status updates from the Facebook News Feed.

Until now, readers would only state a person’s name followed by the word “photo” when someone shared a picture. Now, automatic alt text will use object recognition technology to give a brief description of what it detects in the picture.

For example, when a visually impaired user scrolls past a picture of a group of friends posing outside, the reader could say, “Image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors.” It’s a short description that aims to convey the essence of the photo.

Facebook has been testing automatic al text over the past 10 months with millions of images.

However, it won’t be able to identify everything. In a blog post, Facebook commented, “the engine would know if an image contains a cat, features skiing, was taken at the beach, includes the Eiffel Tower, and so on.

Specifically, we can detect objects, scenes, actions, places of interest, whether an image/video contains objectionable content, and more.”

Andrea Peterson of The Washington Post reported that initially automatic alt text will only recognize around 100 concepts.

Facebook wants to limit the technology to objects it has a strong record of identifying accurately.

The site noted, “Our hope is to build a service that has sufficient recall to be useful, while minimizing errors that might cause awkward social interactions, such as returning an object that isn't in the photo.”

Over time, Facebook will likely be able to improve the technology, building up to more accurate and richer descriptions.

This is an important step in including more people in the interactions of social media.

In a Facebook Newsroom blog post, Shaomei Wu and Hermes Pique commented, “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.”

The development of automatic alternative text aims to reduce that exclusion. “When people are connected,” Wu and Piquenoted, “they can achieve extraordinary things as individuals and as a community — and when everyone is connected, we all benefit.”

Automatic alt text is currently available to people using screen readers in English on iOS devices. Facebook plans to make the technology available in more languages and on more platforms soon.


Written by content manager Meghan Woolley

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