New Facebook tool lets blind people ‘see’ photos

Social media platforms may be a great way of telling the world about your life, but not everyone can appreciate these moments in full.

Facebook is launching “automatic alternative text”; a tool that uses object recognition technology to identify and describe an image, so that visually impaired and blind people using screen readers will be able to hear—and therefore visualize—what’s in a photo posted on the social network.

“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,” Facebook’s Shaomei Wu, Hermes Pique, and Jeffrey Wieland, said in an online post, late Monday.

“We want to build technology that helps the blind community experience Facebook the same way others enjoy it.”

Screen readers are software programs used by people with poor vision, which can scan text shown on screens and then convert the information into speech or braille.

Before the announcement, screen readers would only be able to tell users who posted the Facebook post and that an image was uploaded.

However, the tool will now able to say what the image may contain, from simple objects like “car” to “three people, smiling, outdoors”. Currently, the software can identify around 100 types of objects and scenes, including those associated to nature, sports and transportation.

Facebook’s AI-powered feature launch is just the latest from a whole raft of tech giants looking to improve their platform’s accessibility to wider audiences.

Last week, Twitter announced that Android and iOS app users could now add captions to Twitter-posted images so that people who have braille displays and screen readers could use their assistive technology products, to access and enjoy online content more easily.

Microsoft also recently announced its “Seeing AI” app, which hopes to support those who are visually impaired or blind — with the use of specific technological accessories — to understand who and what is around them with greater ease.

Facebook and Cornell University recently published a paper that looked into the relationship social media had with users who have poor vision. In the study, they discovered that individuals often felt “frustrated” or “excluded” when trying to get involved in everyday social networking activities.

Facebook’s “automatic alternative text” will initially only be available to those who use iOS, with the feature currently being available in English, within certain countries. The company however plans on making the tool available in other l

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