Facebook is rolling out a new service this week which will enable blind users to “see” photos, and engage with the platform more actively than ever before. Previous well-received accessibility features on Facebook have included close-captioning for video content, and a larger text option on Facebook’s iOS app. But until now, images have been something of a barrier.
2 billion photos are uploaded under the Facebook umbrella every day; to the network itself, as well as to Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. As it stands, that’s 2 billion lost opportunities for engagement from blind or partially sighted users.
“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,” says the official Facebook blog. “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.”
Blind consumers currently use screenreaders when browsing the web, which translate images into non-visual output, such as audio or braille. “You used to hear file names, and you didn’t know if they were clickable… it was a big Easter egg hunt — and it wasn’t any fun at all,” says Matt King, a Facebook engineer who is blind himself, and a long-time campaigner for greater accessibility in computing. “Even when I found the eggs, a lot of the eggs were photos. People talk in pictures, and talking in pictures is inherently out of reach for me.”
Twitter is currently experimenting with a similar accessibility initiative, offering sighted users the ability to add a description of the content of their images when they upload them. While this would lead to incredibly accurate descriptions, it’s also something that a great many people simply wouldn’t bother with.
“It would drive people nuts — that would never work at scale,” says King. “We need a solution to that problem if people who cannot see photos and understand what’s in them are going to be part of the community and get the same enjoyment and benefit out of the platform as the people who can.”
The answer? Artificial intelligence.
King and Facebook’s accessibility team have developed object-recognition software which can identify the content of an image, such as people, food and vehicles, and relay that information via sound to the user.
At present, for example, the programme may be able to tell you that there are two people in a photo, they are standing on a beach, and they are both smiling. The technology is still in its infancy, but it is hoped that through machine learning it will soon become more sophisticated. The more advanced the recognition software, the richer level of engagement users will have with images. And by extension, the more enjoyable their general Facebook experience will be.
“[Facebook is] going to have dedicated teams thinking about how to get all these different communities on-board and connecting with each other,” says Jeff Wieland, Head of Accessibility at Facebook. “That is the chance for us to be equalisers and to really empower the world.”