Blind people can now enjoy Facebook’s news feed feature thanks to a new software tool developed by the social media company, Tech Crunch reports.
Facebook launched on Tuesday a software tool called “automatic alternative text“(AAT), which can describe Facebook content to people who are visually impaired. Facebook’s accessibility team, which was launched by the social media company five years ago, created the software by developing algorithms that can automatically interpret content being posted on the social media site. The result is an online tool powered by artificial intelligences that make predictions.
So, how exactly does that work?
It’s easy. Just picture a blind person scrolling down through his Facebook news feed. While he won’t be able to see anything, he can listen to visual cues as spoken out loud by the device he’s holding. By describing exactly what appears on the mobile device’s news feed, AAT provides the blind person the information necessary to know exactly what his friends are up to, what their thoughts on specific social issues are, and what they just had for dinner, among other things.
AAT’s descriptions aren’t exactly vivid, but they provide the necessary cues required to give users a fairly accurate context of what appears on his device’s monitor. For example, if a Facebook friend posted a group selfie photo with two of his friends while on the beach, the device may say out loud, “Image may contain: three people, smiling, sea, outdoor, water.” If another Facebook friend shares a food photo, like say, a cup of ramen noodles, the device may say, “Image may contain: noodles, food.”
By reading out loud a friend’s caption and then describing the photo that accompanies that caption, Automatic Alternative Text allows the user to experience that friend’s Facebook content, even if he’s not able to see it.
Matt King, a blind person who is a member of Facebook’s accessibility team, recalled during an interview with Huffington Post how agonizing it was to browse Facebook for those like him who are visually impaired.
“What you might do in 15 or 20 minutes, just sitting back enjoying a cup of coffee, looking at what pictures your friends posted, an equivalent activity [for me] would’ve been like four hours of strenuous figuring out what to do,” King said. “It’s a feeling like all of technology and society is moving against you. You’re shoved to the margins yet again.”
Automatic Alternative Text is coming to iOS and at a later date Android and the web. So for now, blind people need to own an iPhone or an iPad to enjoy the benefits of the software.
Facebook users are required to launch Siri in order to enjoy the feature. Once Siri is up, turn on iOS’s built-in “VoiceOver” feature. To do this, go to “Settings,” then “General,” then “Accessibility,” and then manually turn on “Voice Over.”
Shaomei Wu, a data scientist for Facebook’s accessibility team, said that a blind person can still miss out on a lot of things even when using Automatic Alternative Text, which is why the team continues to expand on the capabilities of the software. As such, he said that the aim of the Facebook accessibility team is to make the spoken descriptions more personal.
“We’ll continue to expand the number of activities described as we improve the product,” Shaomei Wu told HuffPost “Identifying individuals who are your friends is something we’d like to add in the future as well.”
Of course, that last bit may raise some privacy concerns among most Facebook users, as it suggests that the software may automatically tag people without the user’s consent. That said, it’s still a work in progress, and the Facebook accessibility team is determined to iron out all the necessary kinks before adding a function to the software.
[Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images]