Automatic Alternative Text Allows Blind People To ‘See’ Photos On Facebook


Photos are a big deal online. Every day, people share more than 2 billion photos across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.

While these photos provide a fun and expressive way for people to communicate online, it’s very difficult for the over 39 million blind people and the over 246 million severely visually impaired people to make sense of them. This makes most of them feel excluded from conversations around photos on Facebook.

The guys at Facebook know this isn’t right – they feel the blind and severely visually impaired should experience the social networking platform the same way as others.

As such, they took the pain to find a solution, and they’ve come up with ‘automatic alternative text’. Automatic alternative text, or automatic alt text, generates a description of a photo using advancements in object recognition technology.

This feature lets people using screen readers on iOS devices to hear a list of items a photo may contain as they swipe past photos on Facebook

This wasn’t the case before now. Initially, people using screen readers would only hear the name of the person who shared the photo, followed by the term “photo” when they came upon an image in News Feed.

Now, the story has changed. Automatic alternative text offer a richer description of what’s in a photo. For instance, someone could now hear, “Image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors.”

Automatic alternative text has been launched first on iOS screen readers and set to English, however plans are underway to add this functionality for other languages and platforms soon.

“While this technology is still nascent, tapping its current capabilities to describe photos is an important step toward providing our visually impaired community the same benefits and enjoyment that everyone else gets from photos,” Facebook stated in a blogpost.

By launching this feature, Facebook has followed the footsteps of Twitter. Twitter, just a few days ago, launched alternative (or alt) text in a bid to make images more accessible to everyone – including the visually impaired.

Quick one: Automatic alternative text uses Facebook’s object recognition technology, which is based on a neural network that has billions of parameters and is trained with millions of examples.

Each advancement in object recognition technology means that the Facebook Accessibility team will be able to make technology even more accessible for more people. When people are connected, they can achieve extraordinary things as individuals and as a community — and when everyone is connected, we all benefit.

Source: Facebook Newsroom.

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